As the U.S. draws down its force numbers in Afghanistan, influential voices in the Beltway are warning that withdrawing from America’s current forever wars — including Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan — would increase risk to America’s security. What virtually none of these influencers have considered, however, is what risk we face by staying in the wars. As it turns out, the costs have been enormous and the risk of further damage prohibitively high.
At a recent online event for the Alexander Hamilton Society, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster warned not only that it was a mistake for President Trump to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan, but that doing so was “a travesty.” If Trump made good on his promises, McMaster warned, it would be analogous to Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich.
Matthew Continetti of the American Enterprise Institute said that for the 75 years since the end of World War II, only the American soldier, “has kept a lid on cauldrons of bloodlust” around the world. Withdraw our troops from Syria or any of the many other current combat deployments, he concluded, “and the poison boils over.”
But is that a fair characterization?
Would ending the numerous ongoing wars increase the risk to American security as these voices claim? Fear is one of the most effective tools used by the defenders of the status quo to resist any change, claiming that if their chosen policy isn’t followed, a terrible incident is likely to occur in the future.
McMaster resurrected the specter of Munich and Continetti the Second World War, both claiming that to withdraw troops (from Afghanistan and Syria respectively), would increase the risk of a horrific outcome for America.
Such claims are only effective, however, if the reader is unaware of the specific circumstances behind the historical events cited and does not understand how different today’s conditions are.
In this case, the circumstances aren’t merely different, but virtually incomparable. More to the point, the reality is that America absorbs far more risk by not withdrawing from places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Forever-war advocates rest on the logic that because it is theoretically possible a negative outcome might result if we end unsuccessful wars, it is safer to continue supporting them; that the lowest cost is to maintain the status quo. When the actual conditions of each deployment are examined, however, it becomes quickly evident the significant costs we are enduring, right now, are inappropriate and unsustainable.
First, the physical financial toll is enormous. The U.S. spends approximately $70 billion per year on military operations in the Middle East. Add to that the approximate $52 billion we spend on the Afghan war and the $2 billion in Africa, the four forever-wars alone (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Africa) extract a staggering $124 billion per year from American tax payers.
Second is the human cost. At most, the war in Afghanistan should have ended in the summer of 2002 when all the attainable military objectives had been accomplished after we had decimated al-Qaida and the Taliban government had been punished for providing refuge to the terror group. The 2003 Iraq War should never have been fought at all, and the operations in Africa are wholly unnecessary for American security. Meaning, other than about one year in Afghanistan — during which we suffered 61 killed and 107 wounded — we should have spent nothing and lost no troops.
Yet in all of these unnecessary conflicts, American service members have to date suffered over 6,900 dead, 52,900 wounded, 185,000 have suffered traumatic brain injuries, 500,000 who have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, and approximately 6,000 veterans take their own lives each year. No segment of the United States population has suffered more egregiously — and whose suffering has been more hidden from the public–than the men and women of our armed services.
Tacked on to the human cost, the total bill for all our post-9/11 wars is north of a mind-boggling $6 trillion. If we ended all these wars in a rapid and responsible way, there is no evidence that doing so would result in a new “Munich” moment or result in a major, World War II-type conflict. To the contrary, our ability to identify and strike direct threats to the U.S. from anywhere in the globe ensures that we would still be safe even without a permanent garrison of troops in any of these regions.
We should strip away the façade of the empty claims that our security would be at a higher risk from ending our forever wars. The risk of staying — as evidence by the profound financial and human cost that has already been physically imposed on us — is substantially higher than the theoretical, and entirely manageable, risk of leaving.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
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