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Right for the Wrong Reasons

I hesitate to disagree about Afghanistan with Rory Stewart, who has spent a lot more time there than I have. A former British officer and diplomat, he walked across the entire country shortly after the fall of the Taliban, a madcap escapade gracefully chronicled in his book, The Places in Between. He now runs an NGO, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which is rebuilding the ancient heart of Kabul, where he lives.

On today’s New York Times op-ed page, Stewart has a provocative article entitled “Where Less is More.” His argument is that it would be counterproductive to act as the Democrats suggest by pulling out of Iraq and beefing up the foreign troop contingent in Afghanistan. I agree with this conclusion, but am dubious about his reasoning: namely, that sending more troops to Afghanistan would simply produce a backlash among nationalist Afghans.

There is no doubt that nationalist resentment exists, but polling suggests that the biggest cause of that resentment in Afghanistan (as in Iraq) is not the presence of foreign troops per se, but the failure of the troops to provide basic security. In both places the U.S. strategy focused on training indigenous forces and trying to hand off responsibility to them as soon as possible. We know what a disaster that turned out to be in Iraq. It’s worked out a bit better in Afghanistan for a variety of factors but, given how long it takes to develop capable police and military forces, the only way to boost security in the short-term is to send in more foreign troops. That’s what NATO has done in southern Afghanistan, and I think it’s too early to say, as Stewart does, that this deployment has been a failure.

He writes that “the foreign presence has provoked a wide Taliban insurgency.” But isn’t it equally, if not more likely that the Taliban insurgency was growing in any case, and that the presence of more NATO troops has blunted the effects of that insurgency? We know that the much-ballyhooed “spring offensive” of the Taliban fizzled out. We’re not sure why, but a good part of the explanation is probably preemptive action on the part of a larger NATO force.

That said, I think Stewart is right to argue that it’s generally better to minimize the presence of foreign troops and to rely on local allies as much as possible. But while correct as a general prescription for the Global War on Terror, it’s hard to know whether that is the best solution to Afghanistan’s particular problems. Absent a substantial degree of foreign support, the government in Kabul risks being overwhelmed by jihadists with secure bases across the border in Pakistan. Relying simply on “intelligence, pragmatic politics, savvy use of our development assistance, and on special forces operations,” as Stewart suggests, may not be enough to hold the Islamist onslaught at bay.

Whatever the case, it doesn’t change the fact that a pullout from Iraq would not strengthen our efforts in Afghanistan. A “redeployment” from Iraq would be seen by the world as a defeat for America and a victory for al Qaeda and Iran. They would be emboldened to step up their attacks in Afghanistan, while our allies and our own troops there would be disheartened. In such circumstances, with America reeling from its worst military defeat since 1975, I doubt that there would be much political support back home for a heightened commitment to Afghanistan, regardless of whether or not it makes military sense. At worst, then, Stewart is right but for the wrong reasons.