In an earlier column, I argued against removing the U.S. troops from Syria, essentially by creating a balancing test to determine whether the U.S. should continue its mission in that nation.
(December 18, 2019 / Newsmax)
This balancing test weighed various factors against each other, e.g., the danger to, and casualties of, the U.S. troops stationed in the country, the importance of the national interest, and the effectiveness of the mission.
This same balancing test can also be applied to determine whether U.S. troops stationed in both Afghanistan and in Iraq should be removed.
Here are the relevant facts.
In 2001, the U.S. sent its troops into Afghanistan. There, the governing Taliban had formed an alliance with al-Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda, President Bush demanded that the Taliban cease supporting terrorists and extradite all al-Qaeda terrorists. When the Taliban refused to agree to these demands, the U.S. led a coalition to invade Afghanistan, ousting the Taliban. But the Taliban did not disappear; to this day, they continue to fight the U.S. and the U.S. supported Afghani government.
There have been huge costs from the invasion of Afghanistan, both in “blood” and in “treasure.”
The U.S. has lost 2,440 men, with another 20,516 wounded. However, casualties per year have dropped from a high of 498 in 2010, to an average in the high teens over the past five years. Currently, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is 12,000 to 13,000 (some of which are already about to be removed). The total cost of the operation has been $975 billion.
In Afghanistan, the main national interest supporting this war was as important and as clear as it could ever be. The Taliban had supported and protected al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda had just conducted an act of war against the U.S. Both the Taliban and al-Qaeda had to be punished. If the U.S. had not done so, it would have incentivized attacks against Americans everywhere.
The U.S. leadership has also cited desires to support the Afghani government, to make Afghanistan more peaceful, and to spread democracy and respect for human rights to that country.
This brings us to the effectiveness of the U.S. operation. The U.S. has already achieved its main goals, as the Taliban and al-Qaeda were both punished by being ousted from their full control over Afghanistan. However, both of these groups have since reclaimed some territory. In November of 2019, the Taliban controlled more territory than at any time since the U.S.-led coalition drove the group out of Kabul in 2001; around 15%, with 56% controlled by the government, and 30% controlled by neither.
Unfortunately, other pertinent facts don’t seem to be that positive. Afghani casualties are peaking, with the number of civilian casualties, more than 3,800 this year, poised to reach, or even surpass, the country’s previous records since 2001. Since the start of the war, more than 64,000 Afghani security forces, and 43,000 Afghani civilians, have been killed, which U.S. commanders have said is occurring at an “unsustainable” rate. Few, if any, U.S. military experts believe that the Afghan army can defeat the Taliban on their own. President Ghani of Afghanistan has himself admitted that the Afghani government “will not be able to support our army for six months without U.S. [financial] support.”
Then, there is Iraq.
In 2003, the U.S. sent its troops into that nation. The Bush administration did so because U.S. intelligence services believed that Iraq was hiding a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, and after the 9/11 attacks, they felt that the U.S. couldn’t afford to allow the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, to threaten the U.S. and other nations with these weapons. Bush also argued that Hussein should not be allowed to continue to support terror groups, and that the U.S. needed to free the people of Iraq from Saddam’s dictatorial rule. In 2014, when American troops were sent back to Iraq by President Obama, Obama justified this based on the need to defeat the Islamic State, whose terrorism threatened the region and the U.S. And when President Trump took office, he offered another explanation for keeping the troops in Iraq – “to watch Iran.”
In Iraq, the U.S. has lost 4,575 troops, with another 32,327 wounded. But, like in Afghanistan, casualties per year have dropped from a high of 904 during 2007, to an average in the mid-teens over the past five years. The current number of U.S. forces stationed in Iraq is roughly 5,000. The total financial cost of the operation is $822 billion.
Obviously, the main reason that the U.S. went into Iraq was not achieved, since there was no WMD program. But the U.S. seems to have met its other goals. Iraq seems to have developed a functioning, quasi-democratic, government. The Iraqi government, unlike its Afghani counterpart, is not totally dependent on U.S. troops for its very existence. U.S. troops in Iraq are available to watch, and threaten, Iran. The Islamic State holds only a small amount of territory in Iraq, and has largely been defeated. And although at least 184,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the conflict, the past few years the casualty rate has been reduced considerably.
All three of these operations, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, involve major U.S. national interests. Of the three, the operation in Syria is pretty much an unqualified success, with only a few casualties and (relatively) low financial cost. The total cost for the operation is $54 billion, with an average of roughly $11 billion added each year. As I said before, I believe this mission is worth continuing.
In Iraq, the situation has stabilized, and the U.S. is seemingly achieving most of its priorities. These include crucially important ones, such as keeping the Islamic State down, and counterbalancing the Iranian regime. I would maintain the U.S. presence there.
In Afghanistan, the main U.S. objective has already been achieved. What is left are the subsidiary goals, as I see them: to support the Afghani government, to make Afghanistan more peaceful, and to spread democracy and respect for human rights to that country. These are proving much harder to meet, especially when compared to the mission in Iraq. After 18 years in Afghanistan, there seems to be a consensus that the U.S. is “fighting a long, costly war that remains far from success and offers no clear path for getting there.” If the U.S. military does indeed believe this to be true, then the U.S. should probably just get out.