By Michael Granger
It is tragic to think that Afghanistan is a lost cause, yet it is difficult to disabuse ourselves of the perception that it is. It is not that something went tragically wrong as a result of the U.S. invasion, because it was already broken. And indeed it is a stretch to say that it is on a path to democracy because that may only be true while the United States military is present. We rail against Hamid Karzai’s apparent duplicity, but as corrupt as he may be, his job is no easy one. He must rule over a people the majority of whom are hostile to him and his government. He recently buried his brother who was felled by a Taliban-inspired assassin’s bullet to the head from point blank range.
Osama Bin Laden, the inspirational founder and leader of Al Qaeda and author of the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, has been eliminated. The attack has been avenged many times over. American resolve, if ever it was, is no longer in doubt.
No, violence will not cease upon the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. It will rather escalate. The Taliban will use every measure at its disposal, with extreme brutality, to drive the Karzai government in Kabul out of power or at minimum to render Afghanistan ungovernable, despiteKarzai’s overtures at reconciliation. If they are lucky, there will eventually be a negotiated settlement. But that is a big if and a likely long when. In the interim, we will be left to ponder how the resulting instability might affect the United States.
Pakistan as an unstable nuclear power has the potential to be even more problematic than it is today, given that nation’s internal divisions and ongoing conflict with the neighboring nuclear power and democracy, India. The Pakistanis have enough internal security forces to maintain some order and keep the country relatively stable, though not in a democratic way. If things get out of hand, it will likely revert to military rule. The United States need only to keep India and Pakistan from going to war with each other, which is a diplomatic rather than a military mission.
It is against this backdrop that we now face a decision on the status of our forces in Afghanistan. The considerations are national security, geopolitics and economics. National security is paramount. The questions are how will it affect our national security if we immediately withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan? And can we realistically create ideal conditions for withdrawal in the current and foreseeable political and economic conditions in the U.S.? Because of the fluid and volatile situation in Afghanistan, our dilemma is compounded by the fact that ideal conditions is always in a state of flux. How can we expect to make a permanent change in the next two years that we could not make in the last ten? The United States has worked very hard over the past 10 years to score nation-building victories to win over those who are angry about the application of American military force in Afghanistan. But our nation building is at best a work in progress. What more can we achieve in Afghanistan that we haven’t already tried?
Afghanistan a lost cause?
The answer to the question is Afghanistan a lost cause is that it all depends. It depends on who is asking and who is answering the question. The original U.S. Afghanistan mission implied by the public pronouncements was to exact retribution for the September 11th attack and to prevent future attacks from being launched by Al Qaeda using Afghanistan as a sanctuary. Once in Afghanistan, our sense of duty prevailed upon us to fix Afghanistan more in the image and likeness of a modern state or at least a less backward one. We quickly found out that it is easier to decisively defeat an enemy militarily that to pacify what is left in the wake of that defeat when it comes to the Middle East and the Islamic world.
For the United States, the answer to the question is Afghanistan a lost cause is a complex one that will continue to be a weight on our psyche for as long as that country remains unstable. But as we contemplate what to do about Afghanistan, even an interim answer to that question is complex. It depends on what camp you belong to. For those who believe that America has a preordained role to be a force for good in the world, it would be a heart breaker for us to leave Afghanistan unfinished. Such a belief is probably accompanied by the belief that fixing Afghanistan cannot be accomplished without a significant and prolonged military presence. But as in the Heisenberg Principle in Physics, in order to locate or measure an attribute of a particle, you have to disturb it, so in an occupation you disturb the societal order in the country you occupy. And if that country is so culturally world apart from that of the occupying force, no amount of belief in American exceptionalism can change the inevitable negative reaction.
If you are an isolationist and believe we need to focus exclusively on our affairs at home, you want American forces to withdrawn immediately and completely. For those who fall into that camp, Afghanistan is not our responsibility and the only nation we need to build is our own. That is the Ron Paul position. And, furthermore, it is no concern of ours what obtains in that society after we leave, because our presence there creates that attacks on our military and instigates terrorism.
There are many other issues and considerations that keep us in that part of the world, both economic and geopolitical, which makes it agonizingly difficulty for us to leave. The essential problem is one of communicating these considerations to the American people in times of economic hardship such as we are experiencing. To most Americans, the India and Pakistan problem and how it factors into the stability of Afghanistan and the region is of no moment. And the fact that Pakistan is an unstable nuclear power given to sharing bomb-making technology with the likes of Iran and North Korea is not a top of mind concern of the average American.
So any decision that prolongs the occupation of Afghanistan, with the casualties and drain on American coffers that comes with it, will require adroit leadership. The saving grace is that there is some bipartisan support for a less precipitous and more graceful exit. But that does not make it easy to execute, because under the current economic conditions, spending $10 billion a month on an unwanted war is very difficult to justify.