The latest outrage in Afghanistan has reinvigorated debate about what the United States is doing in that forlorn country. Increasing numbers of prominent Republicans argue that it’s time to come home, a sentiment with which it is easy to sympathize.
If one strips away the mission creep and the sheer waste which USAID calls development, however, the reason we are in Afghanistan is because, prior to 9/11, a vacuum developed which terrorists filled and from which they reached out and struck us. Our goal in Afghanistan is to fill that vacuum. The way both the Bush and Obama administrations chose to do it is to rebuild the Afghan government so it fills that vacuum and to recreate the Afghan army and police so the Afghan security forces can monopolize the use of force inside Afghanistan. If Iraq was problematic after three weeks with a disbanded army, imagine how difficult Afghanistan is after lacking one for two decades.
Our diplomats made a mistake by pushing for too rapid reform in governance. Zalmay Khalilzad also sacrificed long-term security for short-term interests when he pushed for a strong presidential system in Afghanistan. The logic of his decision was to enable Hamid Karzai to co-opt warlords and remove them from their power bases by offering them offices elsewhere. Simultaneously, we sought to build the Afghan National Army so that those regional power brokers could not maintain their autonomy. The problem was when local resistance to an overbearing president became the driver for insurgency. Along Afghanistan’s periphery, locals wanted governors who looked like them and spoke like them, not one of Karzai’s cronies. This clash between the local desire for bottom-up government and Khalilzad’s system of top-down government haunts the mission.
Still, before we abandon Afghanistan, we need a policy to address the original problem: The vacuum. A more productive debate among Republicans (and Democrats for that matter), is to propose alternatives to fill that vacuum.
Simply relying on Special Forces and Predators operators will not work. A robust presence on the ground provides the actionable intelligence which they would need to conduct their mission. The “we can do it from over-the-horizon” was a mantra which proponents of the Iraq withdrawal used, and the results are now in.
Nor can we ever trust Pakistan. The U.S. goal should be to quarantine Pakistan, not to empower it with greater strategic depth. If India were a more responsible partner, they might field the void. But, then again, if pigs had wings, they could fly.
There is no magic solution. Only one certainty: a precipitous withdrawal would recreate the pre-9/11 dilemma with the added danger that Islamists would claim a victory which would reverberate the world over. Withdrawal is fine, but not unless something beyond chaos is left in its place.