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In recent weeks, a number of articles have been written prognosticating that America's planned withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year spells doom for U.S. and Israeli counterterrorism efforts, as well as the broader national security posture of both states. While we are right to worry over the coming humanitarian disaster, anxiety over the security impact of the withdrawal is grossly misplaced. Instead, both the U.S. and Israel should be thankful that the long drain on resources is finally coming to an end and that their leaders will be able to refocus their grand strategies in areas that matter, rather than waste valuable resources in areas of strategic distraction.
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There is an old adage that if you try to defend everything, you defend nothing. Proper grand strategy requires carefully balancing risks, costs and benefits. It requires thinking clearly and rationally, rather than acting with emotion. It also demands recognizing that no state has unlimited resources. To determine how to allocate those scarce resources, states should meticulously assess what are their most vital interests and then commit resources toward protecting those interests. Difficult decisions will have to be made, often with the best choice being the least bad of a series of unsavory options.
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Pretending that Afghanistan qualifies as a vital interest for either the U.S. or Israel is simply ludicrous. The Afghan war started with little thought of costs, consequences or second- or third-order effects. As a result, the strategy (using that term loosely) of the U.S. and its allies has drifted for many years, with national leaders more interested in mitigating domestic political costs than in reassessing the core assumptions of our involvement.
This has caused a monumental expenditure of our limited resources. Many estimates put the U.S. cost of the Afghan war in the range of $1 trillion. When all expenditures are totaled, it will almost certainly cost trillions more due to the long-term impact of veterans' care, as well as interest on the debt issued to finance the war. There is evidence that al-Qaeda's strategy was to draw the U.S. into Afghanistan and then keep us there until bankruptcy. This was no farcical fantasy: Afghanistan economically bled dry the empires of Alexander the Great, Britain and the Soviet Union. The conflict in Afghanistan has been such a gross waste of resources that it probably would have been more useful if the U.S. had set the trillions of dollars spent on the war on fire and used it for heat.
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In addition to its financial cost, the war also spent the nation's reserves of public willingness to confront its enemies. War-weariness is at an all-time high, and if we had continued to stay and fight in Afghanistan, it would have further degraded America's collective willingness to confront the world's real dangers.
When thinking of our vital interests, the U.S. should focus on areas that matter to us strategically and the enemies that can threaten those interests. While we squandered our finances in Afghanistan, the forces of authoritarianism have been on the march. Russia and China present complicated global threats to the existing liberal order that the U.S spent decades building and maintaining. Iran, a nation that has pledged the destruction of both Israel and the United States, presents a regional threat to that order and is on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power—a grave danger that could ignite an arms race and further destabilize a crucial region. Afghanistan is a costly distraction from those much bigger threats.
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Even if a vestige of the terrorist threat does rise again in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to be significant enough to require another large-scale, prolonged intervention. The vast majority of the current fighters are domestic combatants engaged in the struggle for Afghanistan's future. There are some al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants in Afghanistan, but those organizations spread across the world long ago in order to survive. It would require a willful suspension of reality to pretend the senior leaders of those organizations would return to set up terrorist training camps or operate overtly in Afghanistan, as this would put them in the crosshairs of American and coalition aircraft. If anything, it is the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan that provides fodder for recruitment of the global jihadist network. Ending our involvement in the Afghan conflict will hurt the terrorists' recruitment efforts.
As John Quincy Adams once noted, we should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. The world is full of monsters who wish us ill. If we continuously go hunting for all of them, as we have for the last two decades, we will find ourselves financially insolvent and collectively exhausted. It is time for us to rest up and prepare, so that we will be ready when the big monsters do come for us.
Frank Sobchak, colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.), is a publishing contributor at The MirYam Institute. During his 26-year career in the U.S. Army, he served in various Special Forces assignments, including leading teams and companies in 5th Special Forces Group in peace and in war and representing U.S. Special Operations Command as a congressional liaison.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.
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