Was the occupation of Afghanistan worth it?

Political scientist analyzes the aftermath of America's withdrawal from the troubled nation
Homes in Afghanistan
Buildings in Afghanistan, which has been retaken by the Taliban. (Stock image.)

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign political science professor Nicholas Grossman is the author of “Drones and Terrorism: Asymmetric Warfare and the Threat to Global Security” and specializes in international relations. Grossman spoke with Illinois News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the repercussions of the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

What’s likely to happen next in Afghanistan?

The swiftness with which the Taliban overtook provincial capitals and the seat of national government in Afghanistan seems to have surprised the U.S. leaders, who argued as recently as July that the Afghan military could hold the country and a Taliban takeover was not inevitable. Subsequent comments predicted 90 days or more to remove American personnel. Most notably, the Taliban did it with little resistance or bloodshed, having cut deals with tribal elders and securing surrenders from Afghan security forces, some of whom gave Taliban fighters military equipment the U.S. had provided to the Afghan government. Either U.S. intelligence missed all that or U.S. leadership didn’t take it seriously. At a minimum, U.S. withdrawal strategy didn’t account for it.

It’s already evident that the Taliban will once again become the government of Afghanistan and will implement its fundamentalist vision. Various harsh measures, such as forcibly preventing girls from going to school and punishing gay people, will likely follow.

Do you foresee Afghanistan once again becoming a haven for terrorists and terror organizations?

To some extent it already is, as the fighting between the former U.S.-backed government and insurgents left parts of the country ungoverned. The Islamic State group, for example, established a presence starting in 2015, although they’ve sometimes fought the Taliban. The Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaida was disrupted but never ended, and al-Qaida will likely find a more welcoming government than in the last 20 years. But while transnational terrorists may want to attack the U.S. again, the Taliban has always been more focused on domestic power and might have learned the strategic lesson that a big attack launching from its soil has more downside than benefits.

Will surrounding countries likely see an influx of Afghan refugees?

Many Afghans will try to flee, but it’s unclear how surrounding countries will react. And unlike in the Syrian civil war, when years of fighting made about a quarter of the population refugees – and another quarter internally displaced – the Taliban government will likely control a lot of the territory, making flight harder.

You’ve written a book about terrorism and drone warfare. If the U.S. needs to reengage militarily in Afghanistan in the future, would it conduct operations via drones instead of boots on the ground?

Boots on the ground in a hostile country would be difficult. We can already see that as the U.S. is deploying up to 6,000 new troops to ensure safety for withdrawing American personnel. To put that in perspective, the U.S. had only 2,500 troops in Afghanistan before withdrawal. A ground raid by special operations forces, like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan or the one that targeted al-Qaida leaders in Yemen, is possible but risky. Drone strikes carry less risk because they don’t put American personnel in danger, which also usually means less risk to civilians.

But Afghanistan is landlocked, so flying there requires going through airspace controlled by Pakistan or Iran, which the U.S. can get to from international waters, or Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, which requires flying over the Caucuses, Russia or China. The U.S. might still try, especially if there’s evidence that terrorists based in Afghanistan are plotting direct attacks on America, but it will be a lot more challenging than it was over the last two decades – not least because good intelligence will be harder to come by.

Nicholas Grossman
As the military withdraws from Afghanistan nearly two decades after 9/11, the U.S. public should carefully consider the costs and benefits of the effort, said University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign political scientist and international relations expert Nicholas Grossman. (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.)

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the military withdrawal in Afghanistan hasn’t registered much with the American public. Is that likely to change with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the images of chaos from the withdrawal?

Americans rarely care that much about foreign policy, paying more attention to domestic politics, and many are now focused on the pandemic. According to polls, over two-thirds of Americans support withdrawing from Afghanistan, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans. It’s headline news now, and the foreign policy and national security communities will debate it for years. But the general public appears more interested in moving on, and likely won’t pay attention unless there’s an attack on Americans in the future.

Should Afghanistan’s swift descent prompt Americans to reconsider all the blood and treasure expended in “forever wars”?

“What did the U.S. get out of all that effort in Afghanistan?” will be a common question, and the short answer is: al-Qaida expunged, the Taliban out of power for 20 years and international terrorists denied sanctuary, which could have played a role in the absence of major foreign terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11.

Whether it was worth it is debatable, but Americans should be careful to consider the actual costs of the effort, especially in recent years. This wasn’t Vietnam, where the U.S. had over 150,000 troops in 1971 and about 24,000 until full military withdrawal in 1973. It wasn’t Iraq, where the U.S. had about 88,000 troops in 2010 before completing withdrawal in 2011. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has had fewer than 10,000 troops since 2014 and there haven’t been any American combat deaths since February 2020.

What should America do next in the region?

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Phil Ciciora, Illinois News Bureau