For the past 18 years, I have heard people say the United States will ultimately lose any war in Afghanistan, just as the Soviets did. I completely disagree. The United States’ goal from the beginning has been to defend itself by helping Afghans install and maintain a government of their choosing, one that would not allow terrorists based there to launch a strike against the United States. The mission was intended to prevent a reprise of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks directed by al-Qaida from Afghanistan under the gaze of the Taliban government, and that mission has been a success.
By contrast, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979with the hope of expanding its empire by propping up a communist government that had taken power after a 1978 coup. Tenacious mujahideen fighters pushed back until the Soviets retreated in 1989. Years of chaos followed, leading to the 1996 government takeover by the Taliban, which brutally ruled with its extremist Islamic ideology until its ouster in 2001.
The Taliban functioned as a political party, religious authority and social enforcer. Routed from government, the Taliban has waged a long battle to regain power, but as with any political party or religious group, there are militants and moderates within the organization. Taliban leaders who want to follow their beliefs while honoring basic human dignity, and who do not threaten the United States or its allies, are in active peace negotiations with Afghan government officials and tribal leaders. The United States is coordinating those talks in hopes of achieving reconciliation with the Afghan government and the protection of human rights. But the U.S. military is also assisting the Afghan army as it confronts on the battlefield any group or individuals - including militant members of the Taliban - actively working against Afghan national reconciliation.
While many in the current Afghan government want the U.S. military to stay indefinitely, we are eager to bring our men and women home from the fight. We are also eager to prevent another attack against the United States. The war in Afghanistan may finally end soon, but long-term U.S. military basing in south-central Asia is essential for our national security. The fight must continue against a resurgent al-Qaida and a growing threat from Islamic State Khorasan, also known as IS-K, so-named for a region the group claims that encompasses parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ironically, in the fight against IS-K, the Afghan and U.S. militaries can find common ground with Taliban leaders.
Just as the U.S. military maintains a joint base in Honduras to protect the United States from narcoterrorists operating in Central America, we should maintain bases in Afghanistan so we can protect the United States from al-Qaida and IS-K terrorists. But that would not be the equivalent of continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Given that Afghanistan shares borders with Iran, China and Pakistan, the United States has many reasons to stay engaged with a new government in Kabul and to maintain a security force in that unstable region. We should not be the military for Afghanistan, but Afghanistan will not be able to withstand the regional pressures without U.S. advice and support. Joint bases in strategic regions have been an essential part of U.S. national security for decades.
In December, I spent some of the days leading up to Christmas in Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif, visiting with the men and women of the U.S. military. Many have returned to Afghanistan multiple times, even when they could have retired, because they believe so strongly in the mission. If we cut and run, we will tell the U.S. service members who have fought for peace that their blood and sacrifice do not matter. They do matter. What these men and women have accomplished is nothing short of remarkable. In the years since U.S. military operations began in Afghanistan - operations supported by Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses - not a single terrorist attack with roots in Afghanistan has been launched on U.S. soil.
James Lankford, a Republican, represents Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate.