Time to Begin Leaving Afghanistan

Memorial Day, in my view, should be a time of reflection not only on the sacrifices made for the nation in war but on whether our wars are necessary and whether they are being fought in the right way.

The Iraqi people and the parliament want the US out of Iraq, and the US public wants out, and that withdrawal should proceed as outlined in the SOFA (i.e. US out by the end of the year). The Iraqi military is such that Baghdad will likely muddle through without the Pentagon. Moreover, trying to keep US troops in a country where they are widely disliked can only cause a lot of trouble. There are no US troops in Libya and US air involvement is limited in favor of NATO- and Arab League- UN allies. It in any case is likely to be a limited engagement. The place where there are over 100,000 US troops doing war-fighting on a large scale and over many years is Afghanistan, which for some reason gets less press and less public interest than Libya.

The protests in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, against yet another alleged killing of 14 women and children in an airstrike that went awry, reminds us that the big counter-insurgency effort in that country still has not produced social peace, still has not yielded a government capable of taking over security duties. NATO has had to issue an apology. If Afghan police and soldiers could project authority and force in local areas, air strikes would be unnecessary. And after nearly 10 years since the overthrow of the Taliban, it is legitimate to ask when and how exactly local troops can be expected to take up this slack?

The deadly Taliban suicide bombing in the north of the country, which killed the police chief, a German officer, and NATO troops, raises questions about the Karzai government’s preparedness:

But those who are skittish about a proposed US withdrawal in 2014, saying it is too soon, have to tell us when exactly it won’t be too soon. It is the Afghans’ country; when will they be willing and able to fight for it?

The US public is tired of forever wars, and the idea that massive counter-insurgency is necessary to fight al-Qaeda has been belied by the success of a small, focused counter-terrorism operation against Usama Bin Laden.

On this Memorial Day, it is time to start thinking about how to get out of Afghanistan, where the US has no vital interest, where there are no resources to speak of, where the international will to stay on the part of NATO allies is collapsing, and where the Karzai government has been erratic and corrupt. Regional powers have an interest in it not becoming terrorism central again, and the US has shown it can strike smart and on a micro-level. Hundreds of thousands of troops and decades of nation-building are the wrong way to go on this one.

23 Responses

  1. The war in Afghanistan could never have accomplished anything but to exacerbate the United States’ problems with the Muslim world. Only extremists can say that an unbalanced approach in favor of Israel, that sanctions against Iraq that raised the mortality rate in the under-five age group, that disrespect for holy places, that Islamophobia in the West, that drone attacks around the world–but mostly against Muslim nations–all contribute to Al Qaeda and other Islamist group recruitment. War begets more war, and only justice can end the cycle of violence.

  2. On the contrary, Afghanistan has a plethora of mineral resources.

    That doesn’t mean I disagree with getting out of there but the mistake needed to be corrected.

    • The story about Afghanistan mineral resources was underwhelming and basically Pentagon propaganda recycling Soviet era propaganda. There are no *significant* resources in Afghanistan.

  3. Re: “against yet another alleged killing of 14 women and children”

    How come collateral damage is always “alleged” and terrorist attacks are not. By the way, alleged pictures of the alleged victims are out if you’d like to take a look. Lets not beat around the bush and come out and say what we’d like to say, allegedly. See it doesn’t work

    The reason Afghanistan is not covered by the media as intensely as Libya is because it lacks the “star power” of a dictator like Qaddafi. It was the same with Saddam Hussain in Iraq. It is the same in North Korea with the Dear Leader. The US media likes to tell a story and that’s much easier done with a tin pot dictator at the helm.

    Afghanistan is different. Karzai is corrupt but well dressed and that counts for something, right. And who cares if his brother deals with drugs and is a two timing so and so, at least he works for the CIA. Oh, the shadow government you say. Well, supposedly that’s being run by a one eyed mullah from Kandahar, Mullah Omar. No, he is media shy. And yes, there really is only one picture that is known to exist of him. He also lost his eye fighting the Soviets, so the once enemy of the once evil empire can’t be considered evil enough to find a place amongst the Saddams of the world. And that’s probably why Afghanistan is not covered, even though decisions made in that country today will continue to make a worldwide impact decades hence.

    So yes, the US needs to leave Afghanistan but not without making a commitment to the people of that Godforsaken country. That is the least that’s owed not only to the children who lost their lives in NATO bombing but also American soldiers who sacrificed their lives trying to forge a better future for Americans and Afghans alike.

  4. “On this Memorial Day, it is time to start thinking about how to get out of Afghanistan, where the US has no vital interest”

    Juan, our national interest in this war zone is exactly the same as it is in all of the many others we have fostered. It is simply the unending and extremely profitable sale and disposal of war materiel. So we have to live with a bit of co-lateral damage. Unintended consequences are just that … unintended. Get over it. You live in America and she’s the big dog on the block.

  5. .
    “If Afghan police and soldiers could project authority and force in local areas, air strikes would be unnecessary. And after nearly 10 years since the overthrow of the Taliban, it is legitimate to ask when and how exactly local troops can be expected to take up this slack?”

    .

    Dr. Cole,
    the answer to your question is embedded in its erroneous phrasing, using the word “local” incorrectly.

    Consider who the “Afghan police and soldiers” really are.
    In your hometown, the policeman on patrol lives in your neighborhood. She or he can be fired by a Mayor that you helped to elect.

    But let’s look at General Petraeus’ showcase example in Helmand Province of how “Counterinsurgency” has stabilized and secured the town of Nawa.
    link to stripes.com
    The key to stability in Nawa is to bring in Turkmen to police a Pashtoon town. The US official says that police can do a better job when they cannot speak the local language.

    The American strategy in Pashtoon regions is reminiscent of how the British Raj used Nepalese Gurkhas to repress Punjabis.

    There are no “Local” troops or policemen. We are trying to replace our military occupation of Pashtoon areas with Hazara or Tadjik or Turkmen occupation of those areas; that’s our exit strategy.
    Shame on US.
    .

  6. So, it begs the question, why are wars, really, fought at all?
    Very few are capable of tackling the real causes.
    And there’s those little wars, as well as the big ones, the emotional ones that go on all the time between individuals, between you and me.

  7. This Vietnam vet seconds the motion. The US military is a Godzilla gone to fat, a huge bloated grasping careerist-driven doctrinaire appendage of a broken political system and industrial monstrosity that is driving the nation and the world ever deeper into a giant black hole, a coruscation of Grand Strategies and ever-more-lethal technologies that have no meaning and no end except satisfaction of the greeds and ambitions and random thrashings of a very few self-selected humans. It’s a cancer, and feeding it should be the last thing any of us not “serving their countries by killing Others and converting real wealth and true security into scrap metal, splattered corpses and dead-end games.

    The joke, of course, is that the Machine has so much momentum and inertia that there’s not a snowball’s chance of halting it or even changing the course a little. “We kill some of their people so they kill some of our people so we kill some of their people so they kill some of our people….” all while cramming billions of unaudited invisible dollars into the backs of SUVs and private jets. Bunch of BS.

    And this Memorial Day, be clear what you are actually doing when you “thank us for our service.” You have no tiny idea of the reality of the self-serving, self-indulgent, I would even say “traitorous” nature of the military leadership, or the huge amount of wasted motion and wealth, featherbedding, goofing off, bureaucratalifornication, play-acting and other assorted idiocies that you believe, you BELIEVE at least, constitute that institution that you have been suckered into “supporting” on the totally specious notion that it “protects your way of life.” Your “way of life” is, in increasing measure, in fact dictated and warped by the military overlords, who every once in a while thanks to languid incompetence or whistleblower conscience let us get a glimpse of what they are really up to — like using psyops staff to sucker ant delude Congressmen, and “buying the loyalty” of “insurgents” with Viagra and flat monetary bribes to not shoot up those long-supply-line-over-the-Kyhber-Pass convoys before the weapons and $400-a-gallon-delivered-to-the-active-face-of-the-Networked-Battlespace gasoline and diesel.

    It’s been said so many times that apparently nobody believes it any more: “War is a racket.” Per Maj. Gen. and 2-time Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler. Oh, and when you are next in Walmart, check out the shirts and slacks, good stuff too, “Made in Vietnam.” Tell me, all you yellow-ribbon “patriots,” what THAT was all about again? Other than a trillion-dollar transfer of real wealth to the war toy makers? And some kind of sick, perverse, fraudulent “jobs program?”

    • .
      brilliant post.

      One correction:
      Congressmen don’t need to be tricked or psyop’ed into being deluded. They go to Nawa and Marjah because they want to believe the unbelievable.

      link to washingtonpost.com
      Rajiv Chandrasekaran sez in the WaPo today that
      “Last year, the United States spent nearly $1.3 billion on military and civilian reconstruction operations in one district of Helmand province — home to 80,000 people who live mostly in mud-brick compounds”
      An article yesterday noted that more than half of all Congressional visits to Afghanistan include a trip to this Potemkin Village for photo op.
      .

    • Thank goodness- I’ve been missing your comments :) I was close to giving up on IC – so nauseating has been the War-Fanboy flag waving of late.

      About the only thing I agree with JC on is that troops should leave Afghanistan, however unlike him I have never felt that war “morphed into something I could no longer support’ – it was always a sh**ful idea – full of vengeance and little else.

      Anyway, thanks for the very healthy cynicism.

  8. Interesting story about the withdrawal from Iraq in today’s Boston Globe:

    link to boston.com

    But those who are skittish about a proposed US withdrawal in 2014, saying it is too soon, have to tell us when exactly it won’t be too soon. It is the Afghans’ country; when will they be willing and able to fight for it?

    As we learned in Iraq, the promise and reality of a withdrawal is, itself, a necessary condition for making the country “ready” for us to leave. I get that people don’t want to leave a power vacuum. I get the fear that hostile forces waging war against us will not be willing to make peace once we’re gone. However, look at what happened when we signed the SOFA in Iraq, and when it became clear with Obama’s victory that, yes, we were actually going to leave: it changed the internal political and security dynamics in the country. The government realized it wasn’t going to be on “security welfare” and got serious about making peace with the insurgency. The insurgents realized that they didn’t have to drive us out, and suddenly there became no reason for them to be aligned with the foreign jihadists. The militias reorganized themselves into political parties, and became willing to work within the political system, because they ceased to see the government as a tool of foreign occupation.

    The withdrawal from Iraq was not the abandonment of the effort to bring a situation in which we could effect a withdrawal under decent circumstances, but a necessary tool for us to use to bring about those circumstances. I suspect it will be the same thing in Afghanistan.

  9. “And after nearly 10 years since the overthrow of the Taliban, it is legitimate to ask when and how exactly local troops can be expected to take up this slack?”

    We operate as though it’s a given that the Afghan forces we are equipping and training will automatically assume the same objectives and adversaries that we are focused on. We are confident that they will be as indifferent as we are to killing and maiming their fellow countrymen and women. And on a personal level we are convinced that an Afghan soldier will put his life on the line because the Pentagon and the Administration want him to.

    For lack of wars between nation states, our military/industrial/war-lover complex has found civil wars to be habitats of convenience, even if the “complex” has to initiate the civil war, e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan. Initiation was not required for Libya.

    Once we are in we codify who the good and bad guys are, then do our best to portray a similarity between the civil war and a war between nation states.

    The survival of the “complex” is at stake if the troops go back to the barracks. Thus until there is a comfortable alternative to Afghanistan we will not leave.

  10. I would like to amend one observation by Professor Cole, concerning the natural resources in Afghanistan. As an article of June 13, 2010 in the New York Times observed, there are vast mineral deposits in Afghanistan, many of the “rare earth” kind for which China is currently the largest source. It is entirely possible that a strategic decision has been made, with no public discussion, to keep our forces in Afghanistan so as to enable profitable mining for American companies and to prevent the Chinese or other countries from getting access. Perhaps the next big question for the American public is, are you willing to spend vast sums, corrupt your democracy, see your soldiers and innocents abroad killed, and anger hundreds of millions of people so that you can have cheap cellphones?

  11. Puhleez. The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has nothing to do with Afghans or terrorism. It is the modern version of the 19th century Great Game played by Russia and Britain. This time around, the main players are Russia, China, the U.S., and the Europeans. It’s about geostrategy and energy pipelines. Where were the Taliban in the summer of 2001? Houston, arguing about pipeline transit fees. China has already won this war through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so the U.S. might as well leave.

  12. Until the corruption that permeates the Congress of the United States of America is eliminated, along with the prosecution of those very Companies that gave brought this country to the position it is as of this day, and when the P.O.T.U.S. cuts of the petty tyrants that think they can dictate how the U.S. should be,. . . . . . . . . . etc, then we will continue down this slippery slope to ? ? ?

  13. If the US and NATO left the Afghan army and police would not have to pick up any slack. The attacks by the Taliban would stop. There would be a short straight-up confrontation between the Karzai government and the Taliban, a resolution one way or the other and then peace. The only problem with that scenario is that there is no guarantee that the US will be able to control the resulting government.

    • The attacks by the Taliban would stop. There would be a short straight-up confrontation between the Karzai government and the Taliban

      So which is it? Would the Taliban stop launching attacks, or would they wage a war against the government?

      The only problem with that scenario is that there is no guarantee that the US will be able to control the resulting government.

      Really? The ONLY problem you can imagine if the Taliban once again takes over the country is that they wouldn’t be under American control?

  14. You ask: “It is the Afghans’ country; when will they be willing and able to fight for it?”

    Actually they are now fighting for it. The problem is that they are fighting for it against us.

    • Nice elision between “the Taliban” and “the Afgans.” In point of fact, the Taliban are hugely unpopular among most of the country.

      It’s interesting how some people reflexively view the most violent, most anti-American element in any society as the sole, true representatives of that nation’s identity and aspirations.

  15. Do you mean to suggest that, if there were resources there, it would be good reason to stay? Surely that would be despicable.

  16. The problem for the US is that the peace that will happen after we leave has a 50/50 chance of producing a government with which we can not have a good relationship.

  17. Godspeed to the US and UN troops leaving Afghanistan.
    As to the “mineral resources”- if they exist, someone will mine them and try to sell them. Even if the Chinese try to control those mines, as our experience has shown, the Afghans will smuggle if the price is high enough.
    So we can just buy them, without any soldiers dying for them.

  18. We must remain in Afghanistan a bit longer in order to establish the viability of the national government which could preserve safety and security and basic rights against the Taliban.

    Of course, a big longer might actually be forever, but, obviously, we have to do it, because of course we’re going to be successful at creating a good and stable government.

    We’ve done this in lots of places, creating good and stable democratic governments, right? I’m sure there’s an example somewhere.

    But at any particular moment, it will be necessary to remain on scene a bit longer and then we’ll be able to know we’ve accomplished enough to begin to leave.

    Not ‘leave’ as in everybody, but at least a public relations noteworthy number.

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