In the wake of the recent events in Afghanistan, sentiment is growing to speed the U.S. military exit. Half of the American people now want to get out faster, and Obama administration officials are reportedly debating doing just that. Which raises a critical question: What would happen if we pulled out of Afghanistan? Here are the top five disastrous consequences of a precipitous American withdrawal:
1. The drone war against al-Qaeda in Pakistan would likely cease. Eighty-three percent of Americans support targeted drone strikes against al-Qaeda leaders hiding in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Those strikes are dependent on forward bases in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. The U.S. no longer operates drones from inside Pakistan. We cannot effectively conduct targeted strikes from Navy ships because Pakistan’s tribal regions are more than a thousand of miles from the sea. Bagram airbase near Kabul is also too far away for anything other than dropping bombs from F-15s. So if we want to continue the drone war against al-Qaeda, we must have a U.S. military presence not just in Afghanistan but in the Pashtun heartland — and we can’t have that presence if the Pashtun heartland is on fire. The Afghan government is not likely to allow us to keep bases in this area if we were doing nothing to stabilize the country. And if the region falls to the Taliban, we will lose access to these areas completely. Loss of these bases would also mean the loss of the intelligence networks on both sides of the border enabled by the U.S. military presence — and thus much of the targeting information we depend on. As a result, direct strikes in Pakistan could effectively cease, the pressure on the terrorists would be lifted, and al-Qaeda would be free to reconstitute.
2. The risk that Pakistan (and its nuclear arsenal) falls to the extremists grows. With the pressure from the United States lifted, al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban would be free to ramp up their efforts to destabilize Pakistan. In a worst-case scenario, they could topple the government and take control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. In a “best-case” scenario, those within the Pakistani government who supported cooperating with the United States will be weakened, while those who have long argued for supporting the Islamists and terrorists against the United States will be strengthened. Either way, Pakistan becomes a facilitator of terror.
3. Al-Qaeda will regain its Afghanistan sanctuary. The purpose of our mission in Afghanistan, what American troops have fought and died for, is to drive al-Qaeda out and ensure they never reconstitute the Afghan safe haven they used to plan the 9/11 attacks. If the United States retreats now, al-Qaeda will be free to do so. Afghanistan will descend into civil war, and at least some swaths of Afghan territory will return to the control of the Taliban and Islamist radicals. They will not hesitate to allow al-Qaeda to return to its old Afghan sanctuary, where the terrorists can begin recruiting, planning and training again. We’ll be back to the pre-9/11 status quo antebellum.
4. Al-Qaeda would be emboldened to strike the United States again. Osama bin Laden made clear that he was inspired to carry out the 9/11 attacks by the U.S. retreats from Beirut and Somalia, and he promised his followers that this country would eventually retreat from Afghanistan in similar fashion. A precipitous withdrawal would fulfill bin Laden’s prophecy. Al-Qaeda will claim that it defeated one superpower in Afghanistan in 1989 and have now defeated another (a claim that will be bolstered by videos of al-Qaeda leaders setting up shop in former American outposts in Afghanistan). For the past decade, the al-Qaeda narrative has been one of defeat. That narrative would be transformed by a U.S. retreat. Instead of being seen as a failed leader hunted down by American forces, bin Laden will be viewed as a martyred prophet who did not live to see his vision fulfilled. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates will have a powerful new recruiting tool and will be emboldened to carry out new attacks on our homeland.
5. Iran would be strengthened. Iran has already achieved one of its major strategic objectives in the region — the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. A precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would allow Iran to achieve another. If the United States is seen as running from the fifth-poorest country in the world, it will send a signal of weakness that will undermine our ability to isolate Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran won’t fear us, our allies won’t trust us, and fence sitters will have no reason to stand with us — all of which will make a diplomatic solution harder and military action more likely.
This is just the beginning of the ripple effect that would result from a precipitous American retreat in Afghanistan. We keep hearing that we need to get out because support for the mission is plummeting. The reason support is plummeting is because is no one is explaining the consequences of failure to the American people. That’s the job of the commander in chief. It is one he has almost entirely abdicated.