Opponents of President Trump’s decision to draw down troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by January have used a number of arguments to bolster their case. The most prominent ones have little basis in fact.
For instance, there is a high probability that the Taliban could give up on diplomacy with the Afghan government once Washington reduces its personnel (even this argument is a bit specious, since the intra-Afghan negotiations aren’t moving in a particularly positive direction anyway).
Yet, one of the most absurd arguments against withdrawal also happens to be one of the most popular: Leaving Afghanistan will set the table for the next Sept. 11 attack.
Some lawmakers have pushed this fallacy hard this week. Immediately after the Pentagon made its announcement, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming said, “Cutting troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 puts at risk our efforts to prevent terrorists from establishing safe havens from which they could again attack the United States.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina picked up on the same idea, calling the U.S. presence in Afghanistan “an insurance policy against another 9/11.” Democrats are sympathetic to this talking point as well. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, wrote that withdrawing “emboldens the Taliban, ISIS, and terrorist networks that remain intent on targeting Americans.”
The country has heard this line of argumentation seemingly a zillion times over the last two decades. It grows more obnoxious every time a discussion about reductions in U.S. troops is on the table. The problem is that this white noise completely discounts the strides that U.S. intelligence has made since Sept. 11, 2001, in detecting active terrorist plots and snuffing them out. It also wrongly assumes that a long-term counterterrorism presence on the ground is necessary to protect the homeland from terrorism.
For one, terrorist groups don’t need a territorial safe haven to plan attacks. Today, all terrorist groups need is a WiFi connection, an encrypted social media app to communicate with a prospective recruit, and the ability to persuade a deranged individual to do something violent.
Sometimes, simple propaganda does the trick. Plowing a car into a crowd of people or stabbing a civilian in a Paris church have replaced the big, synchronized attacks such as the one perpetrated by Osama bin Laden. A U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, or any other country would do nothing to combat these types of attacks. Indeed, in most cases, they are often even conjured up by individuals who are self-inspired.
Secondly, the U.S. has gotten far more proficient at locating and killing terrorists around the world. This is partly due to trial and error and partly due to miraculous strides in military technology, where drones can hover above a target for 24 straight hours before confirming the order. U.S. special operations forces have spent the last two decades mastering their craft. Surging into hostile terrain and eliminating a high-profile terrorist now comes second nature to the force. Think of what happened to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi last year, when a special operations team, an informant in al Baghdadi’s inner circle, and top-notch logistics allowed the U.S. to kill the most wanted terrorist on the planet.
Thirdly and finally, those frantically predicting another Sept. 11 attack seem to have the wrong perception that the U.S. is the only country on the face of the earth with a security interest in preventing transnational attacks. This, of course, is hardly the reality.
While Russia, China, the U.S., Iran, and Pakistan may disagree about how to address Afghanistan’s political problems, none of them want al Qaeda or the Islamic State running rampantly on Afghan soil. Each of them has fallen victim to terrorism, and thus, each country has an incentive to protect its people. Very often, that means intelligence sharing. Even adversaries cooperate on counterterrorism.
The arguments of those like Cheney and Graham are nothing but hysterics. It would be nice if journalists started challenging them for the facts.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.