The Afghan pullout was horribly handled — but it was the right thing to do
I believed — and still do — that the United States needed to use military force against Afghanistan following the terrible events of 9/11. The national interest demanded that we severely punish the Taliban government because it had provided support and shelter to those responsible for the attacks. Our interests also required that we decimate Al Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden.
But by last August when the final American troops left Afghanistan, ending our longest war, the withdrawal had been long overdue. Indeed, it should have been years earlier. We had already won the war we needed to fight and lost the one to turn Afghanistan into a liberal democracy — an objective not connected to our safety nor worth the cost of American blood and treasure.
I supported Operation Enduring Freedom when it started and eventually decided that I needed to contribute to these efforts like my ancestors had in America’s previous conflicts. So I joined the military just before I would have been too old to start serving.
It was a bit amusing when I went through the screening process with recruits nearly half my age. But I hoped I could do my part in a mission that, from my perspective, was necessary. Plus it had made me angry to hear those without any skin in the game advocate so vociferously for war in Iraq (which I opposed), and here I was on the sidelines for a war I favored.
I volunteered to go to Afghanistan, and the Navy fulfilled my mobilization request. I’m proud to have served in Afghanistan the best way I could despite the problems that eventually befell our mission. I only wish I had made it back there again to serve our country and help end a seemingly endless war after President Donald Trump nominated me to be ambassador to Afghanistan in 2020.
Looking back at our withdrawal with a year’s worth of distance, I still believe leaving was the right decision.
The execution of the final phase of the withdrawal was problematic to say the least. It was terrible to see those 13 Americans lose their lives at Hamid Karzai International Airport. It also reflects poorly on the Biden administration that no one has been held accountable for the failures of the final evacuation.
But just as going in was warranted, leaving after two decades was best for our national interest.
By early 2020 when the Trump administration had signed the Doha agreement with the Taliban to withdraw, the United States had long since met the three necessary goals of the invasion: punish the Taliban, attrit Al Qaeda, and kill bin Laden.
But we had lost our way in Afghanistan. While we won the war we needed to fight, we expanded our aims beyond what our security and our way of life here at home required. We tried to nation-build and promote democratic values in an inhospitable environment based on the false premise that these were necessary to prevent another 9/11 — or that we needed to expand our war aims to do good there. Like most idealistic ventures, it failed and we paid a terrible price: Thousands of American troops died, tens of thousands more were wounded, and we spent trillions of dollars.
Fortunately, US leaders recognized that we didn’t need to stay. Both President Trump and President Joe Biden should be given due credit for understanding this. As it turned out, the Afghan government we supported was a corrupt dependent incapable of effective, legitimate governance. Its military was struggling on the battlefield and ultimately fell sooner than its critics expected.
The only critical US interest we had was counterterrorism, something that withdrawal advocates thought could be managed without a permanent military presence. Instead, the United States could use over-the-horizon capabilities to hit individuals and groups with an intent and capability to harm America. The recent successful strike on Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri shows this is more than possible.
If Trump or Biden had listened to establishment voices and backtracked on withdrawal, our troops would still be fighting and dying in support of a strategy of losing slowly. So when I think about the anniversary, I’m quite pleased that we left. And I was and remain hopeful that we as a country understand that we did so not because we are against war as an instrument of statecraft but because we are realists about when to use military power to serve our country’s interests.
William Ruger is president of the American Institute for Economic Research.