Leaving Afghanistan Is Good. Now What About the Other Wars?

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Army soldiers security Afghanistan
Raider Brigade soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, provide security near their armored vehicle in Afghanistan, Sept. 21, 2018. (Spc. Christopher Bouchard/U.S. Army)

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Defense One, among other outlets.

President Joe Biden's speech last week announcing his plans for the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan was the best of his presidency to date. Admittedly, there's not a lot to choose from just a few months into this administration, but Biden's brief remarks would stand out even from a larger selection.

His case for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan was practical and blunt: Prolonging this 20-year war is counterproductive and unnecessary for U.S. security. It simply is not working. 

"We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result," he said. 

It is past time to leave, and Biden says he will have it done by September.

That's all to the good, but it raises a question the president didn't answer: What about the other wars?

The war in Afghanistan is not our only "forever war," to use Biden's favored phrase. It is the longest of Washington's ongoing military interventions in the greater Middle East, but it is only one among many, and the logic of Biden's speech, applied to those other conflicts, should lead to their conclusions, too.

Consider Iraq. Biden argued that the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had a just cause and the support of key U.S. allies. The same cannot be said of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Longtime U.S. allies like France opposed the war from the start, and we've known for years that its premise -- protecting Americans from Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and punishing his regime for its likewise nonexistent links to al-Qaida -- was not just. It couldn't be just, because it was built on untruths. If Biden thinks the war in Afghanistan had a legitimate beginning and yet should end, shouldn't he want to end the illegitimate war in Iraq even more?

Biden's other arguments are apt for Iraq as well. 

"I flew to Afghanistan" on a fact-finding mission in 2008, he said. "What I saw on that trip reinforced my conviction that only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country, and that more and endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government." 

Do Iraqis not have that same right of self-determination? Is there some reason to think, 18 years on, that U.S. meddling has been a successful nation-building tool in Iraq?

Similarly, Biden decried "the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence," thinking we'll get a better outcome than before. Isn't that exactly what we do in Iraq, where U.S. boots on the ground have numbered as many as 170,000 and as few as the current 2,500? Or the administration's acknowledgment (not explicit in Biden's speech, but emphasized by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan a few days later) that there are no "guarantees about what will happen inside the country" after the U.S. occupation ends. 

In Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida will undoubtedly attempt to capitalize on America's exit. In Iraq, it would be the Islamic State, Iranian-linked militias and others. If that risk is not enough to keep us in Afghanistan, why is it enough in Iraq?

Even Biden's arguments about counterterror operations going forward, made at greater length by an unnamed administration official in a background call the day before the speech, apply just as well to Iraq. 

"Over the past 20 years, the threat has become more dispersed, metastasizing around the globe," the president said, which means "keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me and to our leaders." 

A forever war in Afghanistan isn't needed to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States, and it's a distraction from more pressing issues in U.S. foreign policy, this administration says. The same can be said of a forever war in Iraq -- so why isn't Biden saying it?

We could apply nearly all the same logic to smaller U.S. military interventions in Syria and Yemen, and the Pentagon's "enduring footprint" across half of northern Africa. Biden has scaled down the U.S. drone war outside of Afghanistan and Syria. In early February, he announced he was ending American support for "offensive operations" by the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen's civil war, a coalition that has helped produce the world's most acute humanitarian crisis and is widely thought to be guilty of war crimes against Yemeni civilians. 

But it remains unclear exactly what is classified as "offensive operations," and Yemen is still subjected to Saudi blockade. Moreover, Biden has hardly cut ties with the Saudis -- he expanded the U.S. military footprint in Saudi Arabia -- and he's kept U.S. forces in Syria, continuing to use that country as the site of proxy war with Iran.

So why is Biden treating Afghanistan like a special case? Why does he seem to be ending this forever war and not the others? If he understands the force of his own arguments about the war in Afghanistan, the president should apply them to all our wars and end them.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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