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


John Moore/Getty Images

The United States is finally pulling out of Afghanistan. Although most Americans have long favored withdrawal, proponents of a continued U.S. military presence warn of the collapse of the Afghan government, the subjugation of women and the restoration of a terrorist hinterland.

Both sides of the debate ignore an important point: American troops can return. Permanent military presence and continuous withdrawal are not the only military options for addressing potential sources of transnational terrorism. Punitive expeditions, i.e., strategic attacks to punish or deter enemy actors, are long overdue to be reintroduced into the American strategic toolbox.

Punitive expeditions provide a common ground: short, intensive campaigns to punish sponsors of terrorism and deter others. Large-scale attacks have a moral and physical force far greater than the largely symbolic effect of cruise missiles or limited bombing, while a rapid withdrawal of troops once the immediate objective is achieved prevents the United States from becoming bogged down in perpetual wars.

The ongoing wars in the Middle East and the challenge posed by a superpower competing with Russia and China should not obscure an important truth: With its strategic mobility, expeditionary logistics, and high degree of readiness, the U.S. Army is unmatched in demonstrating its combat power. America can send thousands of troops to foreign soil in a very short time, especially against an enemy that has no modern access/defense systems.

Students of military history might think of raids on Roman legions or of battle and punching expeditions in Victorian Britain, but a punitive expedition is about as American as a miniature or a tomahawk.

George Washington


Thomas Jefferson

have both authorized and continued the raids. It was during one such campaign that the American flag was first raised overseas: 1805 Marine Corps on the coast of Tripoli, an expedition to punish and deter the privateers of the barbarian states.

The United States can conduct punitive expeditions at low cost, especially compared to occupying a country or supporting security forces for a long time. The overthrow of the Taliban in 2001-2002 cost $20.8 billion and cost dozens of Americans their lives in combat. Since then, America has spent more than 90 times as much on stabilization and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion of a country of 25 million people, cost $90.3 billion in fiscal 2003. Subsequent spending on the war in Iraq exceeded $2 trillion.

For reasons of risk aversion and misplaced humanitarianism, the United States foolishly refrained from the punitive expedition. America cannot afford to garrison Afghanistan or other failed states against endless unrest. It can afford to apply short and severe sanctions in response to threats that are significant and persistent enough to warrant them. America was able to deal with the Taliban in the months after 9/11. We can do it again.

Mr. Barndollar is a senior member of Priority Defense. In 2011 and 2013, he deployed to Afghanistan as a U.S. Navy officer.

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