As President Trump and his advisers consider whether to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Clifford May urges them to see the war there as America’s enemies do: a single theater in a much larger war that began with the fall of the Ottoman empire, if not even earlier:
In 1998, [Osama bin Laden] signed a fatwa on behalf of the “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” proclaiming that killing “Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” [But] scant attention was paid until a few months later when two American embassies in Africa were bombed. . . .
If our troops are to remain in Afghanistan, they should have a mission that is both clear and achievable, one that strengthens American national security. Transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy seems unlikely. Definitively defeating the Taliban may require more resources that can be made available at a time when we have other battles to fight and other adversaries to keep in check.
A third option [would entail] gradually and painstakingly strengthening the ability of the Afghan government to defend itself, and ensure that the country never again is used as a safe haven, training ground, and command center for large-scale international terrorist attacks. . . . If what I’m describing is a mission impossible, the only sensible alternative is to retreat from the battlefield. But in that case we should be honest with ourselves about this slow-motion failure, and learn from it. We should imagine the benefits that will accrue to our enemies globally and plan accordingly. . . .
Afghanistan is a battle in a war that began in the distant past; a war that we’re not yet winning; a war that is likely to go on for years to come. Many Americans and Europeans find the prospect of such an “endless war” intolerable. Our enemies, by contrast, are patient and determined. The advantage this gives them should not be underestimated.