We Gotta Go Now

May 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s with a heavy heart that I make this pronouncement because I know that many dedicated members of the military and foreign service have tried their best and have served there with an honor- but we need to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.

If you define the mission of Operation Enduring Freedom as an attempt to capture Al-Qaeda members and otherwise destroy their ability to plan and train for other terror attacks in a safe haven than we’ve already accomplished our mission and should have gone home a long time ago.

Of course, nothing in Afghanistan since the autumn of 2001 has gone as simply or smoothly since then. The administrations of both Bush and Obama have stayed on for a variety of reasons since then. Most of these- trying to eradicate the brutal Taliban, building a Western-style democratic and stable central government, and trying to address some of the worst abuses of hardline Islamic fundamentalism- are all worthy and well-meaning objectives but one can form the opinion that none of these will be achieved to a satisfactory level by the time foreign military forces are set to leave the country- if they can ever be achieved.

Although the overmatched Taliban was initially whipped by the U.S.-led coalition, we’ve since found that Afghanistan hasn’t changed much since the U.S.S.R.’s attempted takeover in the 1980s. Although carved into the shape of a nation, Afghanistan’s history suggests a dis-united amalgam of competing tribes and warlords in which family, regional, ethnic, and/or religious ties have meant far more than any sort of “nation”.

Although the government installed by the coalition forces led by Hamid Karzai has probably done a more creditable job than one might expect given the bleak past history, it is perceived by many Afghans as a Western puppet. Despite much hard work to legitimize the administration, corruption, and weakness still means that Karzai’s forces exert little external control outside the immediate Kabul area. As we’ve seen, sometimes  there has been tragic violence within the capital itself. The Soviets also installed a friendly government and it too had little support or legitimacy to the average Afghan. Of course, besides battling the flinty mujahideen the Red Army was also hamstrung by outside support from foreign radical Muslims who joined the fight against the atheist infidels. Of course, the U.S. provided support to any effort that weakened the Russian Bear. Like the ’80s, foreign infiltration, a fanatical foe (the resurgent Taliban), and allies that seem a lot more like enemies (Pakistan) have made a tough road for the coalition.

Our efforts in Afghanistan have clearly changed since the original mission to deny the country as a safe haven and home of Al-Qaeda. Nation-building is what we’re currently engaged in. For a spot on the map that has never functioned in any meaningful way as a “country” means that if we’re to do so effectively (a big if!) will mean a concerted effort by not just the military but significant aid and development personnel and certanly money for decades. There is no reason to believe that any American presidential administration will care to do that. Evidence strongly suggests than the ordinary people of Afghanistan- aside from other religious and/or political priorities- don’t want us either. So where are we now? Should we stay? If the answer is yes, what will we consider a success or “win”? As universally hated as the Taliban was- even (especially?) within Afghan borders- they have grown resurgent if for no other reason that they share a common religion and culture than the strange foreigners who have frequently acted in a ham-fisted manner. The tribal leaders and warlords that effectively govern large swaths of the country have no particular reason to diminish their own influence by receding towards a different type of system that has never worked. The similar remote tribal areas of bordering Pakistan are largely left to their own devices by the far more stable government of that country. While these provincial (in many senses of the word) areas are just the sort where fundamentalist views can flourish, short of actively confronting hardline Islam (often viewed as attacking the religion itself by the adherents) there seems little to do other than provide development aid so that the population can grow more affluent over time which favors secularization. Given the heavy amount of military presence though with the inevitable accidental civilian casualties and widely-reported examples of cultural insensitivity, and it would take a long time to sell a very skeptical population that we’re only interested in development. Another area of concern is the viability of the defense forces of Afghanistan. Although the Coalition has undoubtedly done their best to create a legitimate military that can take the battle to the Taliban and provide a bulwark against unrest until (or if) the Karzai government can stabilize and legitimize itself throughout the country, questions remain if this force can do the job after professional troops from Western countries have winnowed down. A frightening trend has been the numbers of radical plants or turncoats within the military that have carried out suicide or other raids against their comrades or against Coalition military assets. What percentage of the forces we’ve trained can we trust? Yet another ironic chapter of our mission to Afghanistan has been the re-emergence of the illegal drugs trade. The extremism of the Taliban years had one salutary effect- a harsh eradication of the opium cultivation. The uncertainty of the future governance (or lack thereof) of the country has emboldened the producers of this illegal trade to ramp up their efforts with impunity.

Things look gloomy indeed. The problem is that none of the players involved appear able to avoid the mistakes of the past or have the stomach for being involved for the “long haul” it will take to make a real nation out of an area that has never functioned as one. The only way to potential regain the initiative in Afghanistan would be to ironically accelerate our withdrawal and only return to an active presence in the country is if invited by the Karzai government. If this were to happen it would have to involve development and aid interests first and only a “light touch” militarily (if at all) to support the country’s defense forces rather than lead missions or appear to be pulling strings.

This may not only be the only way forward for Afghanistan but a blueprint for future U.S. involvement in world hotspots.


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