In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq citing two justifications: to depose Saddam Hussein and to destroy Iraq’s banned weapons program. Within a year, Hussein and his accomplices were imprisoned, and it had been discovered there was no Iraqi banned weapons program. Having achieved its goals, why didn’t the United States leave? Seven years later, this question haunts the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, citing two justifications: to find Osama bin Laden, and break up al Qaeda. Bin Laden is now dead, and al Qaeda broken.
So why doesn’t the United States leave?
By autumn, American forces will have spent a full decade in Afghanistan — conducting patrols, bombing the heinous, bombing the innocent. The United States has roughly 100,000 soldiers and air crew in Afghanistan, almost as many as the peak force in Iraq. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan constrains the Taliban, and the Taliban are an awful group. But the Taliban are a central Asian problem afflicting Afghanistan and Pakistan — their existence does not in any way threaten the United States’ national interest.
Having fulfilled its goals in Afghanistan, why doesn’t the United States leave?
Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, writes in the Wall Street Journal that, “Since 9-11, al-Qaeda has never had more than a few dozen fighters inside Afghanistan at any given time.” Boot is a hardliner — he supports the Afghanistan war, and is author of the 2003 book Savage Wars of Peace, a spirited defense of superpower engagement in low-level conflicts. Boot also thinks there are terrorist groups other than al Qaeda in Afghanistan.