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The Democratic candidates’ debate answers on Afghanistan were terrible

At the Democratic presidential debate on Thursday, the 2020 presidential candidates argued over the nitty-gritty details of policy proposals on everything from health care to gun policy to immigration and criminal justice reform.

But when it came to what to do about the war in Afghanistan, the candidates were devoid of ideas about what to do beyond “get out, and get out fast.”

Indeed, it seems like they’re competing to one-up each other on how quickly they’ll pull US troops out of the country. When the campaign cycle started, nearly all of the candidates were pledging to remove troops by the end of their first term. Then, it changed to bringing them home by the end of their first year in office.

On Thursday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) moved the goalposts even closer: promising on the debate stage to pull troops out of Afghanistan immediately, even without a peace deal in place.

“What we’re doing right now in Afghanistan is not helping the safety and security of the United States, it is not helping the safety and security of the world, it is not helping the safety and security of Afghanistan,” Warren said. “We’re not going to bomb our way to a solution in Afghanistan.”

When pressed by the moderator on whether she’d listen to her top military leaders if they advised her not to pull troops out without a deal in place, Warren pushed back, saying that when she’d talked to US generals about it in the past, they were unable to define what “winning” in Afghanistan looks like. “No one can describe it,” she said. “And the reason no one can describe it is because the problems in Afghanistan are not problems that can be solved by a military.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, was asked the same question. His response was similar to Warren’s: “We have got to put an end to endless war. And the way we do it is see to it that that country will never again be used for an attack against our homeland, and that does not require an open-ended commitment of ground troops.”

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s answer was the same. “I’ve signed a pledge to end the forever wars,” Yang said. “We’ve been in a state of continuous armed conflict for 18 years, which is not what the American people want. We have to start owning what we can and can’t do. We’re not very good at rebuilding countries.”

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Third Debate In Houston
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on stage during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University’s Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

But there’s one major problem with all of these candidates’ bold promises to end the war in Afghanistan: No one seems to have a plan for how to do it without putting thousands of Afghan lives in danger and potentially kickstarting a civil war that could undo the decades of work done by the US and its allies.

Afghanistan promises made, Afghanistan promises not kept

It’s little surprise that Warren and others are pushing to end America’s involvement in the 18-year-old conflict. A 2018 Pew Research poll found that about half of Americans say the US has “mostly failed” in Afghanistan.

It’s a sentiment that’s popular with voters of both parties — Donald Trump won the presidency in part on a promise to withdraw the US from costly wars abroad. Barack Obama also pledged to end the war in Afghanistan, saying on the 2012 campaign trail that he’d do so by 2014.

But when they actually got into the White House and took over the role of commander in chief, they both discovered that making promises at a campaign rally or on a debate stage is a lot easier than actually coming up with a feasible solution for how to end the war.

After a year-long policy review, Obama ended up adding 33,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2010, and when he left office in January 2017, there were still roughly 8,400 military members in the country.

Trump then came into office promising to end the war, but after a months-long policy review, he too increased troop levels in the country.

He followed the course the two commanders in chief before him did: keep military pressure on the Taliban, the hardline Islamist insurgents fighting the US and NATO allies for two decades, until it has no choice but to sign a peace deal with the Afghan government. Those negotiations abruptly ended last weekend after Trump canceled talks because the Taliban continues to kill Americans and civilians in Afghanistan.

Trump speaks at a podium during his Afghanistan war address.
President Donald Trump speaks during his address to the nation from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on August 21, 2017. He discussed continuing the war and his hope for a peace deal with the Taliban.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Warren and Buttigieg and Yang and all the others can promise to bring troops home right away all they want, but unless they have a real, comprehensive, thought-out plan for how they intend to do so — which none so far has shown they have — they too may very well find themselves in the same exact predicament as their predecessors when they’re sitting in the Oval Office.

“A new Democratic president will surely will be faced with a lot of not-good choices” regarding Afghanistan, says Jonathan Schroden of CNA, a military research think tank in Washington. “Getting out will be among the worst choices they’ll have.”

The perils of a quick Afghanistan withdrawal

The US has two main military missions in Afghanistan. First, US troops train and advise Afghan security forces so they can better fight the Taliban and other groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda on their own, without the help of the US and its allies. Second, US forces carry out combat missions against terrorist themselves, launching raids and air strikes against ISIS and others.

Both of those efforts are viewed as crucial by the US military to ensure that the Afghan government can protect itself and that the nation won’t be again used as a base to plan terrorist attacks on America like it was for 9/11.

Schroden, who has been to Afghanistan 10 times, co-authored a report in 2013 detailing what could happen if the US abandoned those missions. He told me that while some facts on the ground have changed since 2013, the four broad conclusions of the report remain the same:

  1. If the US ended its advisory mission, Afghan security forces would lose much of their strength as thousands would surely desert military. That would most likely happen in some of the country’s most contested regions, especially the south where most of the brutal fighting takes place.
  2. If the US ended its counterterrorism operations, terrorist groups like ISIS would likely grow because of a lack of pressure.
  3. If the US ended both of those missions but still offered financial assistance to Afghan troops, the force might hold for a couple of years but ultimately fall apart.
  4. And if the US disengaged entirely, meaning no troops or financial help, competing political forces in Afghanistan, such as those committed to democracy and those sympathetic to the Taliban, would pull the country apart. That could igniting a catastrophic civil war.

“None of those outcomes bodes very well,” said Schroden.

If Warren and the other Democratic candidates aim to pull troops out of Afghanistan, they must contend with this reality. They have to acknowledge that an immediate withdrawal would likely be bloody and undo many of the nation’s gains, including the better lives many women and minorities there lead today.

US-Afghan military operation against Islamic State militants in Nangarhar province
Afghan commandos forces take part in an operations against the Taliban, ISIS, and other insurgent groups in Achin district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on January 2, 2018.
Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“We want peace, but we don’t want to lose our achievements,” Aqilla Mustafavi, a 25-year-old Afghan woman, told the New York Times in February. “We took a long road to reach here, and we don’t want to go back.”

Still, there are many who say the situation in Afghanistan is already dire, and there’s little the US government can do about it. That’s why it makes sense to invest American resources into other areas — like combating climate change — instead of continuously pouring it into an unwinnable war.

“Every single one of one of our goals there is untenable and ridiculous,” Jason Dempsey, an expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank who deployed twice to Afghanistan as an infantry officer, told me. “Those who want to stay need to tell us how to unfuck that.”

That’s completely fair: those advocating for a longer war — which would certainly mean more troops lost and money spent — have to make the case why it’s in America’s best interest to keep fighting. After all, if the US hasn’t won in nearly 20 years, why would more time make any difference?

But at the same time Democrats have to be mindful of the risks of a quick withdrawal. Saying they would order a fast pullout with little mention of what that actually means for the thousands of Afghans relying on American help may be politically expedient but is careless and cruel in reality.

The Afghan people, especially people like Mustafavi, deserve a fuller explanation.

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