Opinion | Afghanistan: The U.S. Can Always Go Back

U.S. soldiers return home from deployment to Afghanistan at Fort Drum, N.Y., Dec. 10, 2020.


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The U.S. is finally getting out of Afghanistan. While most Americans have long supported an exit, advocates of a continued U.S. military presence warn of the Afghan government’s collapse, the subjugation of women and the re-establishment of a terrorist haven.

Both sides of the debate ignore a key point: U.S. troops can go back. A permanent military presence and a permanent retreat aren’t the only military options for dealing with potential sources of transnational terrorism. Punitive expeditions—strategic raids to punish or deter hostile actors—are overdue for a return to America’s strategic tool kit.

Punitive expeditions offer a middle course: brief, high-intensity campaigns to punish sponsors of terrorism and deter others. Large raids have both a moral and a physical force that far outweighs the largely symbolic impact of cruise missiles or limited bombing campaigns, while swift withdrawal after achieving the immediate objective prevents the U.S. from being drawn into “forever wars.”

Intractable wars in the greater Middle East and the challenge of great-power competition with Russia and China shouldn’t obscure an important truth: Thanks to strategic mobility, expeditionary logistics, and high levels of readiness, the U.S. military is peerless when it comes to projecting combat power. America can put thousands of soldiers on someone else’s soil on very short notice, especially against a foe lacking modern antiaccess/area-denial systems.

Students of military history may think of raiding Roman legions or Victorian Britain’s campaigns of “butcher and bolt,” but the punitive expedition is as American as the minuteman or the tomahawk.

George Washington


Thomas Jefferson

both endorsed and prosecuted raids. The U.S. flag was first raised overseas during one such campaign: the Marine Corps’ 1805 stint on “the shores of Tripoli,” an expedition to punish and deter the corsairs of the Barbary States.

The U.S. can launch punitive expeditions at low cost, especially in comparison with occupying a country or conducting prolonged security-force assistance. The overthrow of the Taliban in 2001-02 cost $20.8 billion and a dozen American combat deaths. America has since spent more than 90 times that amount in Afghanistan on a stabilization and counterinsurgency effort. Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion of a country of 25 million people, cost $90.3 billion in fiscal 2003. The subsequent cost of the Iraq war was more than $2 trillion.

For reasons of both risk aversion and misplaced humanitarianism, the U.S. has foolishly abandoned the punitive expedition. America can’t afford to garrison Afghanistan, or other failing states, against disorder endlessly. It can afford to inflict short and sharp punishment in response to threats that grow large and obstinate enough to warrant it. America successfully did that to the Taliban in the months after 9/11. We can do it again.

Mr. Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities. He deployed to Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine infantry officer in 2011 and 2013.

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