One of the more frustrating exchanges in the vice presidential debate this past week was the one about Afghanistan. Vice President Biden thinks he won the point by insisting that the United States was simply pulling out: “We are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. There is no ifs, ands or buts.” By contrast, Paul Ryan’s position was more nuanced, expressing a clear desire to end the American military role in the war there but criticizing the administration’s decision to announce a firm deadline for the pullout that has told the Taliban that all they need to do to triumph is to just wait for the U.S. to bug out. Ryan has the better argument, but at a time when fatigue with foreign wars is high, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Biden’s position might be more popular.
That sentiment reflects not merely the wish to extricate U.S. troops from a bloody and difficult task but a desire to ignore what happens to Afghanistan and its people and to treat the conflict as irrelevant to American interests. That position was more fully articulated in today’s lengthy lead editorial in the New York Times. The piece, titled “Time to Pack Up,” takes the position that the United States should not even wait until 2014 to abandon Afghanistan but flee within the next 12 months leaving the country to the tender mercies of the Taliban. Ironically, the Times underlines Ryan’s fears about what the administration is about to do in Afghanistan. The paper, which in this case probably speaks for most liberals on the issue, treats the Taliban’s eventual victory as perhaps regrettable but unavoidable. They concede defeat to the Islamists but seem to think that admitting this will strengthen rather than hurt American interests in the region. They could not be more mistaken.
The editorial acknowledges that the paper, like many liberals, used to think of Afghanistan as the “good war” that needed to be pursued to victory as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq. But that has long since been exposed as a cheap rhetorical device whose intent was to bash President George W. Bush rather than a sincere desire to ensure that the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies did not regain control of Afghanistan. The Times claims that any chance of victory was lost because of Iraq but fails to explain why that is so since they believe no amount of counter-insurgency efforts would root out the Taliban.
Advocates of quick withdrawal blame the situation there on the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. On that score, Karzai and his corrupt regime have much to answer for. But the willingness of the Taliban and other Islamists to go on fighting until victory would not be diminished even were the Kabul government to be led by saints. For far too long, America has not treated victory over the Taliban as its priority and the result is an unsatisfying stalemate. But what will follow American withdrawal will be a disaster as even the Times notes:
We are not arguing that everything will work out well after the United States leaves Afghanistan. It will not. The Taliban will take over parts of the Pashtun south, where they will brutalize women and trample their rights. Warlords will go on stealing. Afghanistan will still be the world’s second-poorest country. Al Qaeda may make inroads, but since 9/11 it has established itself in Yemen and many other countries.
The only problem with this assessment is that it may be too optimistic. If the Afghan people believe the government is no longer the “strong horse” in the country, the Taliban and Al Qaeda may achieve far more than a takeover of the south. The result will be ruinous for the people we have sought to protect there, a point on which the Times editors shed few tears. The Times writes as if the end of the Vietnam War was a worthy model for the U.S. to pursue in Afghanistan. Given the toll in human suffering in terms of mass executions, hundreds of thousands sent to “reeducation camps” and or made to flee as boat people, that’s an immoral position. But it is also wrong about the strategic effects of defeat in Afghanistan.
The end in Vietnam did lead to collapse and genocide in Cambodia, but Southeast Asia was always a strategic backwater in America’s Cold War against the Soviet Union. By contrast Afghanistan’s fall would not only reinvigorate an al-Qaeda that the Obama administration pretends to have defeated. It will impact the stability of non-Islamist regimes throughout the Middle East and reduce the chances that a democratic government in Iraq will survive in the long run.
The Times also foolishly asserts that such an outcome would strengthen America’s hand in Pakistan, but it is difficult to see how a victory for their Taliban allies across the border would make Karachi any more amenable to U.S. interests.
It should also be noted that the editorial concludes with a passage that is factually incorrect. Dwight Eisenhower did negotiate an end to the fighting in Korea but he did not leave Korea as the Times asserts. American troops are there to this day guaranteeing the survival of the peace that Ike made. The absence of such a tough-minded peace doomed Vietnam to a totalitarian nightmare and may yet be felt in Iraq. The Times’s claim that what follows our defeat will be, “likely to be more presentable than North Korea, less presentable than Iraq and perhaps about the same as Vietnam.” That demonstrates ignorance of the differences between the Vietnamese communists and our foes in Afghanistan. But if Americans willingly allow the nation that launched 9/11 to fall back into the hands of those who aided and abetted that crime then it will reduce our prestige and harm our interests far more than advocates of withdrawal seem to understand.
Unlike Southeast Asia in the 1970s, America cannot pretend as if the Middle East is on a different planet. The costs of trying to do so will not only be immoral but will also make the United States and the world far less safe.