Op-Ed: The Hill: The Afghanistan withdrawal that could have been

May 01, 2021

By Lt. General (Ret.) Keith Kellogg

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Today should have been the day our troops came home from Afghanistan. All President Biden had to do was follow the plan. Former President Trump set May 1, 2021 as the day to end our military presence in Afghanistan while the Biden administration moved it to Sept. 11. This push was not due to strategy or inability to execute, the military was aware and had made plans to ensure the original execution date.

It appears this was a decision based solely on politics and an unwillingness to share the victory with the previous administration, as President Biden has not given any sound policy reason for moving the date. President Biden moved this date at the cost of roughly $7.5 billion for those four months, the risk that we lose more lives overseas, and the desecration of a day that should stand alone, unclouded by politics.

I welcome the decision to withdraw, as do thousands of veterans and their family members. All Americans must honor the sacrifice of those who served and those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation in that far off land. They are American heroes. But it is well past time for a new approach, not just to Afghanistan but foreign policy and the use of military might.

During my time in the Trump administration, I witnessed firsthand President Trump’s monumental effort to undo decades of groupthink in regard to our efforts in the Middle East. He should have received cooperation, but instead he got pushback from “experts” and senior decision-makers who had made little to no progress in this field. Most fretted too much and too often about what might be lost by moving on from Afghanistan instead of focusing on the costs of *not* moving on. The result of the former has been nearly two decades of sustained operations, even though it had become increasingly clear that a traditional victory was not possible. The “experts” did nothing more than muddy what should always be our guiding principle: If it isn’t good for America, we shouldn’t do it.

Without any basis in fact, the opinion of far too many was grounded in political bias. The opposition to staying in this forever war was met with internal hesitation and resulted in headlines such as, “Trump’s Afghan Troop Withdrawal Is a Gift to the Taliban.” All the while, national security pundits beat the same drum that they’ve been beating for decades now. “Success is just around the corner,” or “Give it one more year,” were their mantras.  More troops. More money. More blood, sacrifice, and loss, and no gain for Americans.

It is important to recall that the Taliban are Afghans, and over the past decade we have been trying to nation-build in the midst of what amounts to a civil war. During his presidency, Trump made his intent clear when he announced his South Asia strategy in 2017 stating, “…we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society.” But the same national security pundits I mentioned previously, including some senior officials in the Trump administration, pushed back on the president purely out of habit and a flawed view of the strategic environment we faced as a country. Dangerously, while these same pundits were pontificating and were fixated on a future, potential threat in Afghanistan, another very real, present threat emerged: a China focused on economically capturing the world.

Thankfully, Trump pushed back against the momentum of falsehoods and hand-wringing that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called “deeply resisted change.” He continually tasked his National Security team for solutions to ending the “infinity war.” His objective was to secure an ending that would still preserve our national interests and protect lives. 

Ultimately, it was President Trump’s and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s efforts that led to the establishment of a Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. It was President Trump who pushed for direct negotiations with the Taliban. The Trump administration saw zero deaths to American forces from Taliban attacks after his personal involvement secured a key agreement with their forces. His work and his policies put our national security interests above all others and our strategy finally respected the value of human capital that had long been wasted in forever wars. It’s because of this, that an option for a safe, full withdrawal is even possible. President Trump had the grace to call President Biden’s troop withdrawal effort “wonderful,” and it’d be nice for President Biden to do the same.

Keith Kellogg is a retired Army Lieutenant General who was an assistant to the president and national security advisor to Vice President Mike Pence. He is currently Co-Chairman for American Security at the America First Policy Institute, a non-profit non-partisan research institute that seeks to develop policies that put Americans first.