President Obama’s decision to escalate our military presence in Afghanistan with the introduction of 30,000 troops is doubling down on a bad bet.
President Bush made the decision to commit U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan on the questionable theory that if you could deny the Taliban and al Qaeda a place from which to operate, you could put them out of business forever.
Of course, we know now that theory was flawed. The word is awash in failed states that provide fertile climates for evildoers. By displacing the Taliban from Afghanistan we pushed them into the northwest frontier of Pakistan where they have threatened the security of a nuclear state. As we have pursued the bad guys into Pakistan we have alienated many Pakistanis who are offended by our incursion into their territory, and who regard the “collateral damage” of our air attacks as indistinguishable from terrorist assaults on their own people.
Admittedly, President Obama does not have any good choices in Afghanistan. Our continued involvement risks destabilizing both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but can we risk doing nothing in Afghanistan?
After eight years we have proved that you cannot “drain the swamp,” to use Bush’s colorful phrase. Instead, we have found ourselves without any strong allies in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Early on in the war we naturally embraced President Karzai as an intelligent, seemingly incorruptible, western-oriented reformer with a flair for fashion. We were either wrong about his character, or he has just proved too weak to resist the threats from warlords and the greed of his drug-dealing brother. Eight years on we find ourselves putting American soldiers at risk at an enormous cost to defend a shaky government that clings to power by stuffing ballot boxes and exporting opium.
Regardless of the threat posed by our enemies or the courageous sacrifice of our soldiers, the war in Afghanistan is not winnable. Continuing to fight in Afghanistan merely because we are there, and we cannot admit our mistakes or find a graceful exit is madness.
We did not choose the war in Afghanistan. We fought to defend ourselves, and we successfully drove al Qaeda and the Taliban from their sanctuaries. But now the real problem is that we do not have a government worth defending in Afghanistan. American lives and treasure are too precious to squander them to preserve a government that is corrupt, weak, and antidemocratic.
True, the Taliban are ruthless thugs. Yes, we can all agree that the Taliban would be even worse than Karzai’s corrupt regime. The Taliban oppress women and brutally impose religious fanaticism. But is it really up to America to rid the world of all bad guys, and if so where do we start?
Of course, the threat of terrorism still exists. You can argue that the reason we have to increase our commitment to Afghanistan is that if America walks away we will embolden the terrorists. But our fight in Afghanistan and Iraq has not deterred the terrorists, and our continued presence there has polarized the country, encouraged the recruitment of more extremists, and destabilized Pakistan.
I’m not suggesting that we should simply withdraw tomorrow and allow the Taliban to march into Kabul. I am suggesting that rather than escalating the war, we could accelerate the process of turning over the war to Afghans with logistical support, training, and arms provided by the United States. For a decade the Afghans themselves fought the Taliban without much U.S. support. Presumably, if Afghans do not want a Taliban regime, they will fight if they have to. Ultimately, perhaps the Afghans can find a way to reconciliation among themselves that would still deny al Qaeda a safe haven.
I know that I may be excoriated as a defeatist or as unpatriotic. But I care more about our soldiers than I care about some vague sense that America has to prove its manhood once again. We do not honor the men and women who have fought so valiantly in Afghanistan by escalating a war with no likelihood of success; we do not deny the courage of our soldiers by returning them safely to our shores.