“It is not too late to declare victory over the forces that compelled the United States into the war in Afghanistan while accepting the failure to fix the conditions that kept us there for nearly two decades against better judgment,” writes Benjamin H. Friedman. His in-depth explainer offers a blueprint to exit Afghanistan and a path forward for the region.

It is long past time for the United States to exit the war in Afghanistan. The war is a wound bleeding away U.S. security and prosperity without benefit. Ideally, a rapid U.S. exit would happen alongside a deal with the Taliban but should not depend on it.

Afghanistan’s success as a state is desirable but not a security necessity for Americans. Nation-building does not justify keeping U.S. forces at war and spending $30 or $40 billion annually in Afghanistan. Military power is incapable of achieving that goal, at least at an acceptable price. The United States does not need to perpetually occupy Afghanistan and conduct a counterinsurgency campaign to achieve its core security goal in Afghanistan—preventing terrorists there from targeting Americans. Counterterrorism does not require counterinsurgency.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan succeeded before it expanded into a failed nation-building effort. The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 (1) to destroy the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization and (2) to punish the Taliban government that gave it haven. Within a year, the Taliban had fallen and its leadership dispersed. U.S. strikes and local allies had destroyed much of Al-Qaeda’s core, and the remainder was hidden and hunted. U.S. leverage to negotiate a withdrawal agreement was at its zenith. The United States should then have brought most of the troops home but for a small presence to hunt Al-Qaeda survivors and train Afghan security forces. That residual force could have been withdrawn somewhat later, once Al-Qaeda was rendered ineffective as a trans-national terrorist organization.

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