Bret Stephens says we can’t ever leave Afghanistan:
In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. A little less than a decade later, the Soviets left, humiliated and defeated. Within months the Berlin Wall fell and two years later the USSR was no more. Westerners may debate whether credit for these events belongs chiefly to Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Charlie Wilson or any number of people who stuck a needle in the Soviet balloon. But in Islamist mythology, it was Afghan and Arab mujahedeen who brought down the godless superpower. And if one superpower could be brought down, why not the other?
Put simply, it was the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that laid much of the imaginative groundwork for 9/11. So imagine the sorts of notions that would take root in the minds of jihadists — and the possibilities that would open up to them — if the U.S. was to withdraw from Afghanistan in its own turn.
Whatever you think about Afghanistan, this is crazy. For one thing, as Matt Duss says, obviously al-Qeda is going to make propaganda hay out of whatever we do since that’s just what you do. But I would say the crucial issue here is that at the end of the day objective reality mattered much more to the Soviet Union than did the subjective feelings of the mujahedeen. The Soviet economy was actually dysfunctional. Popular resentment in the satellite states of Eastern Europe was running high. The regime lacked legitimacy. Ultimately all this proved much more important to the fate of the USSR than anything that happened in Afghanistan.
Fortunately, the United States is in much better shape than the USSR was. But it’s still the case that fundamentals matter most. Will we continue to have a productive, growing economy? Will we continue to have a cooperate relationship with other major economic and military powers? And as far as al-Qaeda goes, capabilities will always matter more than feelings. Do people want to perpetrate terrorist attacks against western targets? Can they acquire powerful weapons? In Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world we need to be focused on practical issues — mitigating the risk of terrorism through cost-effective measures, not worrying about what al-Qaeda’s going to say about us.