Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Afghanistan Pullout

The U.S. is scheduled to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in about a month, after a decade of fighting there. Full withdrawal is supposed to be by 2014. Everyone expects the July 2011 withdrawal to be a token number, more symbolic than a meaningful proportion of the 100K troops there, because the battle against the Taliban is still at high pitch and the Afghans are not yet competent.

However, with the recent decapitation of Al Qaeda, there is opportunity to rethink the Afghan plan. The U.S. could plausibly declare the “war on terror” essentially won, because we got the perpetrator of the 9-11 attacks. Then we can get out of Afghanistan (and Iraq too!) much more quickly. Those were Bush’s wars of choice, which Obama inherited, and promised in his presidential campaign to end quickly. This is his chance to do what he said.

There is talk among the punditocracy that we must not “abandon” Afghanistan. We must “stay the course,” and make withdrawal sensitive to “conditions on the ground.” What is behind this kind of cautionary talk?

The fear is that as soon as we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will take over (probably under the leadership of our man, Karzai). If that happens, then Pakistan may well go Taliban too, and then you’d have nuclear terrorists. Who they would attack first, the U.S., Israel, or Europe, is beside the point; we assume they would attack. Bad scenario. Therefore, do not pull the troops out of Afghanistan “prematurely.”

But that logic can be rethought. There are two sets of arguments for simply declaring victory and pulling out all the troops as quickly as possible. Argument set one is domestic: The war is very unpopular in the U.S.; it is bankrupting us, and Obama needs to win in 2012. One reason for the 2014 date for a “serious” drawdown in troops is that it would be after Obama’s re-election, so couldn’t hurt him, and might give Democrats a boost in the midterms. But that is chicken thinking.

The second set of arguments for pulling out now/soon from Afghanistan is that we are not accomplishing anything significant there anyway. We cannot kill or capture every Taliban terrorist in the country. They breed too fast. They can easily wait us out. As for “nation-building,” we aren’t doing much of that either. We’re trying, with clinics and roads, to make life better for the people, but we are not winning hearts and minds; the populace is ethnically divided and not susceptible to democracy; and it is an opium-based economy. Even the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, doesn’t’ want us there. Hawks like senator Joe Lieberman insist we need to “build a country we can be at peace with.” But he doesn’t say how to do that, and he can’t, because it is not possible, at least not in his, mine, or Obama’s lifetime. Our position there is unsustainable as a practical matter. We cannot win militarily and we cannot be successful politically. The writing is on the wall: Afghanistan is going to be an anti-western, fundamentalist, Islamic theocracy. Let’s plan for the reality, not the fantasy.

Once Afghanistan has gone over to the dark side, the Taliban probably will influence or virtually take over Pakistan too, which is already halfway down the slippery slope to a failed state. Maybe we could continue to prop up Pakistan, just as we have propped up Israel for decades, and keep the nukes out of the hands of the Taliban. That would be much cheaper than what we are paying to keep troops in Afghanistan. But even that plan is not a sure thing. The Pakis are extremely ambivalent about us. They love our money, but that’s about all. Many are sympathetic to the Taliban. It is not for certain that we can buy their allegiance for much longer, and it is seriously not clear if Pakistan can survive as the pseudo-democracy it is now.


Let Obama put his silver tongue to work and convince Americans of the real problem: We are stalemated in Afghanistan and so we should get out and plan instead for surgical retaliations when the Taliban acts up, as they surely will. We can, without being public about it, switch from a “global war on terrorism” to more of a police footing, where we kill and capture perpetrators, but do not invade whole countries and fight literal wars on their soil. We need to keep our legal options open. The president probably does not want to give up his “war” authority to pursue badguys to the four corners of the earth, across international borders where necessary, but there is probably some kind of slippery political language to finesse the legal points.

We should also prepare to prop up Pakistan (with the money we save by ending the war!) and also prepare for a failed Pakistan and even for nuclear terrorists. How will we react? Why not plan for the real probable future world, rather than hanging on to the status quo like some talisman that lets us avoid lifting our heads. A “stay the course” policy in Afghanistan is like a child’s superstition: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Hey, that won’t save us. It is pure superstition, not realistic policy.

Obama could pull virtually all the troops out of Afghanistan now and be ready to react to the next move. Yes, it’s a reactive approach, but we cannot be proactive against the Taliban in Afghanistan. That is amply demonstrated by the “facts on the ground.” The Taliban will not act rashly before 2012 because they know a Republican victory would probably bring the troops back in. They will wait. That gives Obama time to be ready with a thunderbolt response. Meanwhile the troops stop dying, and the money stops hemorrhaging in Afghanistan, and we’re no worse off geopolitically.