An Open Letter to the President: Do Not Withdraw from Afghanistan
It may be the hard choice — but it's also the right one.
Dear Mr. President,
I’ve written about three dozen articles and blog posts since 2010 calling on you not to withdrawal all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and explaining why the war is worth fighting and winning. Here’s a sample from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, and articles in Foreign Affairs, First Things, Survival, the World Affairs Journal, and the New Republic. My only regret is that I didn’t write more.
The Taliban seizure of Kunduz proves my point: If the United States completes its withdrawal, the Afghan army will not be able to hold the line against the Taliban and its allies. Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for jihadists. You will lose the war in Afghanistan, give jihadists a massive boost, and put Americans at risk of terrorist attacks.
This is so obvious that your own former undersecretary of defense for policy, Michèle Flournoy , came out against your policy of withdrawal and signed an open letter this spring calling on you to reverse course and keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
So did dozens of other prominent U.S. and Afghan policymakers, journalists, and scholars.
But the most persuasive case for the importance of Afghanistan has come from you. You campaigned on a pledge to rededicate our nation’s efforts to the “good war.” You wrote in 2007, “We must refocus our efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan — the central front in our war against al Qaeda — so that we are confronting terrorists where their roots run deepest.”
You said on the campaign trail in 2008, “As president, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.” You promised an additional $1 billion in civilian assistance every year (a promise you kept — once, in 2010, and never afterwards).
When you announced your initial policy in March 2009, you said “We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists. … That is a cause that could not be more just.” You argued that, “The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it.”
In December of that year, you doubled down: “Our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. … And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.”
You defined the objective clearly: “We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”
In July 2011, you rightly noted the gains made by the surge of troops you ordered. Then, you said, “We’ll have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we’ve made, while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government.” To that end, you promised to “build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures — one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.”
In May 2012, you reiterated that, “We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al Qaeda could establish itself once more.” To that end, you signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan that, you said, “establishes the basis for our cooperation over the next decade” and lays the groundwork to give the Afghans the “support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014 — counter-terrorism and continued training.”
Mr. President, I agree with every one of these statements. None of them led me to believe the United States would completely withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. They seemed to lay the groundwork for a sustained, small presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for counterterrorism operations and to train Afghan security forces. This is a sensible policy.
Your announcement, in 2014, that “By the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq,” was more than surprising. It was an appalling and obvious effort to make sure the war was “over” by the time you left office. Your concern for your legacy outweighed common sense and military strategy.
You made sure to say that the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan “just as we’ve done in Iraq.” That is exactly what I fear. Iraq could hardly be a clearer cautionary tale. The United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, with no provision for a stay-behind force for counterterrorism operations or to train the Iraqi security forces. Just a few years later, the Islamic State arose from the fragments of al Qaida in Iraq and conquered Mosul, Raqqa, and Ramadi.
Today, the Taliban have not even waited for the U.S. withdrawal to be complete before going on the offensive and seizing Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city. When the Taliban were ousted from Kunduz in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, it unhinged their entire position in the north and essentially ended their reign everywhere north of Kandahar.
I understand that it is politically difficult for you to reverse yourself. But the greatest test of a president is whether he grows in office. All presidents make mistakes. What distinguishes the wisest statesmen is whether or not they recognize their mistakes, and take steps to correct them.
You still have time to recognize and reverse your mistake on Afghanistan. You owe it to the American people to err on the side of doing as much as possible to keep them safe. You owe it to the Afghans to keep 14 years of promises we made to them. You owe it to yourself to give the largest, longest, and costliest foreign policy initiative of your presidency the maximum chances of success.
Finally, you owe it to your successor to leave him or her with maximum flexibility in Afghanistan. If you complete the withdrawal, the next president will have a much harder time addressing the challenges across South Asia. If you leave the troops there, the next president can use our presence as necessary and, eventually, withdraw when appropriate.
Keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan is politically unpopular, costly, and tacitly admits that your policy of withdrawal was wrong. But it is also the right thing to do. This is the sort of hard choice that shows what sort of president you are and whether you have grown during your time in office. Mr. President, make the right choice.
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