Since entering Afghanistan twenty years ago, more than 2,300 American service members have been killed while serving our nation with more than 20,000 military personnel injured. Thousands more suffer severe mental health challenges, including and post-traumatic stress, as taxpayers have spent nearly a trillion dollars.
Our presence in Afghanistan coincides with the U.S. not suffering another 9-11 level attack on the homeland, has severely disabled al Qaeda’s movements and provided a platform to decimate its leadership and kill or capture many of its members.
Additionally, U.S. presence is a reminder to any nation or non-state actors that they should be wary of attacking us. Departing from Central Asia gives less of a target and more open space to our strategic adversaries in China and Russia. Gains in women’s rights and education might suffer a withdrawal.
In January 2021, the United States reached its target troop level of 2,500 personnel in Afghanistan, the lowest level of force since 2001.
According to the Afghan peace agreement signed in 2020, the U.S. forces are supposed to leave the country by the beginning of May.
Like President Trump before him, President Biden promised to end the United States' longest-running war during his campaign.
In early February, the Afghan Study Group, a bipartisan panel appointed by Congress, recommended that the U.S. reconsider the withdrawal date for its troops from Afghanistan.
According to the study group, Washington should include Afghanistan's neighbors in the new diplomatic push to find a peaceful solution.
While the report acknowledges that none of Afghanistan's immediate neighbors want the U.S. to maintain a long-term military presence in the region, they also believe that a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops would trigger chaos and promote regional instability.
The Taliban controls approximately one-half of Afghanistan's territory.
The U.S. has been nudging Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to move toward a settlement with the Taliban.
The U.S. has proposed a 15-member "high council" -- a power structure with seven Afghan government members, seven members from the Taliban, and one member appointed by Ghani. The U.S. has also emphasized its concerns about the treatment of women and religious minorities in the country.
The U.S. has also suggested holding elections following the formation of a transitional government. The Taliban has opposed the concept of elections, describing them as a divisive exercise imposed by the West.
In the latest TIPP Poll, only one-third (34%) said that they are following the Afghan situation very closely or somewhat closely. TIPP asked follow-up questions only to this subgroup.
When asked what should be our primary mission in Afghanistan
- 34% said to protect the United States homeland's long-term security against terrorism by killing or apprehending terrorists who pose a threat to the U.S.
- 20% said to support the Afghan government in building the Afghan state to not devolve into an outlaw state and become a haven for terrorists.
- 36% said both
- 7% neither
The likelihood of a complete troop withdrawal on May 1 is remote.
Everyone is worried about whether the withdrawal will cause regional instability, allowing bad actors like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda to take advantage of the situation.
The United States had a bad experience withdrawing from Iraq under President Obama, which some argue resulted in the birth of ISIS. As evidenced by their views here and here, foreign policy and military experts are divided. Concerns about the consequences of the withdrawal are reflected in public opinion in the United States.
When asked what the U.S. should do with its troops this year
- 31% support complete withdrawal,
- 18% favor leaving a smaller residual force and withdraw others,
- 29% want the current troop level maintained,
- 14% think the U.S. should increase its troops.
Support For Afghanistan
Americans agree with one thing. The U.S. must continue to support Afghanistan politically and financially.
The stability of Afghanistan is critical to the country's security, the region, and the world.
The presence of a small U.S. force, such as those still present in Japan, Germany, South Korea, and other countries, will go a long way toward ensuring stability and progress. The United States must withdraw all of its troops only when it is clear that it will provide a smooth transition on the ground.
Mark Pfeifle was deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and global outreach from 2007 to 2009. He led the effort to promote President George W. Bush's "surge" of U.S. forces in Iraq
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