The longest war in American history drags on, with Washington a captive of purposeless inertia. The Obama administration should bring all U.S. forces home from Afghanistan and turn the conflict over to the Afghans.
After Afghan-based terrorists orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Washington invaded the Central Asian nation. The Bush administration had little choice but to make an example of the Taliban regime as well as target al Qaeda. Members of any government giving sanctuary to those who attack Americans need to understand that they will no longer be members of any government.
But that lesson was delivered 12 long years ago when U.S. forces aided indigenous opponents of the Taliban to capture Kabul. If nation-building in Central Asia ever was a realistic objective, the moment soon passed. The Bush administration shifted its gaze to Iraq and careened to disaster along the Euphrates.
Yet President Bush continued to pursue a resource-starved counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. The conflict wasn't as costly -- in lives or money -- as Iraq, but the war lacked serious strategic rationale. As 9/11 receded into the past, fewer Americans had any idea what the fighting was about.
President Barack Obama took office having opposed the Iraq invasion, but twice increased the number of troops in Afghanistan. Still, he promised that U.S. forces would return home. Last year Vice President Joe Biden stated simply: "We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period."
But now the administration wants American troops to stick around, for years, if not forever. The newly negotiated Bilateral Security Agreement would take effect on January 15, 2015 and run until "the end of 2024 and beyond." The administration apparently hopes to keep between 8,000 and 15,000 troops on station.
The president has made Afghanistan his war.
Why? Back when even some Republicans began turning against the conflict, the Heritage Foundation's Baker Spring said the Afghan war was necessary to "defend the vital interests of the United States." These days "vital interests" have taken over the role of "patriotism," which Samuel Johnson famously called "the last refuge of a scoundrel." Almost any issue any where in the world is routinely elevated to "vital" status to justify extensive and expensive U.S. intervention.
Afghanistan never was vital to America. Not even during the Cold War. After the Soviet invasion in December 1979 the conflict offered a convenient and inexpensive (for Washington, not the Afghan people) opportunity to bleed Moscow dry. Less then a decade later Soviet forces withdrew.
The U.S. government has been criticized for then losing interest in the struggle, but there was little Washington could have done. The civil war continued. There was no peace to keep and only direct military intervention could have imposed one. America had neither cause nor ability to do so.
Osama Bin Laden again focused U.S. attention on Afghanistan, but only the transitory terrorist connection made control of Kabul critical to America. With the displacement of al Qaeda and punishment of the Taliban, Afghanistan quickly receded in importance. Observed Biden: "we went there for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans, al Qaeda. We've decimated al Qaeda central. We have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."
So what is Washington doing there today? A mix of nation-building, democracy-promotion, and humanitarian intervention. The State Department's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, James F. Dobbins, warned that if the U.S. fails to maintain its presence "you project into the upcoming electoral period a degree of instability caused by growing alarm at Afghanistan returning to the 1990s." The election could turn into "winner takes all" and "every man for himself, where losers in the election don't just go into the opposition but get killed or go into exile."
However, if the Afghan political system is as fragile as Dobbins suggests despite years of allied military and financial support, the few thousand personnel the Obama administration hopes to keep in country won't make much difference. In fact, social engineering in Afghanistan has failed. Coincident with the negotiation over the BSA was the announcement that the Afghan Justice Ministry was drafting a new penal code which would punish adulterers by stoning--the same penalty imposed by the previous Taliban government.
Moreover, war is a dubious humanitarian tool. Afghan civilian deaths are in the thousands. The Taliban are the greater killers, but the conflict is their occasion for doing so. Moreover, the U.S. bears responsibility for misdirected air strikes, violent home raids, and substantial other "collateral damage." Before his recall even Gen. Stanley McChrystal complained about checkpoint killings: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been displaced, many fleeing into Pakistan.
Why else should Washington stay in Afghanistan? The country's travails are destabilizing its neighbors, most obviously Pakistan, but the conflict is the most harmful factor. Unfortunately, American involvement exacerbates the problem. There is near-constant confrontation with Islamabad over cross-border incidents, drone strikes, supply convoys, and more.
The Economist magazine worried about "a civil war that might suck in the local powers, including Iran, Pakistan, India and Russia," which would eventually "end up harming America." Yet the price of conflict without America is likely to remain far less than with America. Neither history, with three decades of war, or geography, with porous borders, gives much hope for eliminating the Taliban and stabilizing the region.
Some U.S. officials want to keep troops in Afghanistan for embassy security. However, most of the projected personnel would be scattered about the country, not available to protect diplomatic posts. Washington better would reduce its vulnerability by staying out of the fighting and reducing the size of its facility alongside its ambitions.
The last stand for U.S. officials is counterterrorism. When I visited Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 I received a plethora of briefings. Allied commanders and officials routinely justified the Western presence as being necessary to prevent an al Qaeda revival. Back in America John Bolton similarly contended that the Taliban and al Qaeda had to be defeated lest they "reconquer Afghanistan and make it a base for international terrorism."
Yet this scenario is highly unlikely. Global al-Qaeda is weak if not moribund, more a symbolic franchise than an ongoing operation. Three years ago CIA Director Leon Panetta concluded: "At most, we're looking at 50 to 100, maybe less" al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Terrorists don't need to locate in Afghanistan when they can operate in Pakistan and many other nations. Indeed, al Qaeda affiliates seem to be far more active in Yemen, Syria, and increasingly Iraq than in Afghanistan.
Moreover, even a triumphant Taliban wouldn't likely welcome back the group which brought down the wrath of America. There is evidence that top Taliban leaders were not pleased by their guest's behavior in 2001. Indeed, Washington should point out that the lesson of 9/11 still applies: aid terrorists against America and suffer the consequences.
For the most part, the largely Pashtun Taliban isn't interested much in larger struggles. Its members simply don't want foreign occupation of their land. Concluded a Washington Post story on administration deliberations on a full withdrawal: "Many of the groups that U.S. forces target in Afghanistan -- most notably the Afghan Taliban -- do not appear eager to attack Americans or U.S. interests outside the country."
The strongest argument against the "zero option" of no troops is that it would limit Washington's capability to strike elsewhere, most notably in Pakistan. One unnamed administration official told the Post: "The footprint of the intelligence community depends to some extent on the footprint of the military."
No doubt, fewer troops would mean less reach. However, the projected 8,000 to 15,000 military personnel, servicing a complex of bases, communications facilities, airfields, and out-size embassy, look more configured to act in the civil war that is likely to continue. The draft BSA allows U.S. forces to engage in combat if "mutually agreed" and notes that "U.S. military operations to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates may be appropriate in the common fight against terrorism." The Post cited Pentagon officials as affirming that widely dispersed bases "would allow U.S. intelligence personnel and Special Operations forces to remain within easy striking distance of insurgent groups in the tribal area that straddles the border with Pakistan." Yet insurgents against the Pakistan government are even less likely than the Afghan Taliban to attack America.
Further, the larger the projected presence, even if focused on counterterrorism, the greater the target for terrorists, insurgents, and malcontents of any variety. Better a much smaller counterterrorist operation, perhaps embedded within an Afghan base to lower its profile. Better still would be moving any operations off-shore, as with Yemen. Action "would get longer, slower and harder," said Linda Robinson of RAND. Nevertheless, that would be a cost worth paying to restrain dubious American military involvement.
Moreover, Washington should scale back its drone operations in Pakistan and elsewhere. It's not easy to assess the current program's costs and benefits, and especially the number of non-combatants killed -- with a consequent rise in hostility toward America. But so-called "signature" strikes, in which most anyone in proximity to suspected terrorists is viewed as a likely terrorist, undoubtedly kill locals who threaten no one. Further, the U.S. began targeting the Pakistan Taliban apparently on the rationalization that Pakistani militants might threaten Americans in Pakistan. Unfortunately, blowback was inevitable: the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was motivated by U.S. drone strikes and trained by the PT, after it found itself under attack.
Nevertheless, the administration remains committed to preserving a sizeable military presence in Afghanistan. However, President Karzai unexpectedly declared that he did not want to sign the BSA until after April's presidential election. He convened a Loya Jirga, or grand council, to debate the accord, but told the meeting that "This pact should be signed when the election has already taken place, properly and with dignity."
The Obama administration is insisting on immediate approval. Said National Security Adviser Susan Rice: "Without a prompt signature, the U.S would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan."
The dispute has turned into an international game of chicken. Karzai admitted: "My trust with America is not good. I don't trust them and they don't trust me. During the past ten years I have fought with them and they have made propaganda against me."
Some suspect that Karzai hopes to enhance his nationalist credentials and administration's reputation, as well as wring more benefits out of Washington. Four years ago U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry opined: "He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending war on terror and for military bases to use against surrounding powers." Former and future Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said that Karzai "thinks the Americans are keen to stay in Afghanistan at any price and at any cost." In fact, Karzai told the Loya Jirga: "We want the Americans to respect our sovereignty and be an honest partner. And bring a lot of money."
While Afghan support is necessary for any continued American presence, it is not enough. The U.S. presence should serve U.S. interests. American security guarantees are popular around the globe: The Europeans, Australians, Japanese, and South Koreans have subcontracted their defense to Washington since the 1950s. And none of them has tired of the subsidy. Afghanistan likely would be no different.
In putting off implementation of the BSA President Karzai actually is doing America a favor. U.S. troops actually might leave Central Asia -- as they should.
What would follow? It almost certainly would not be the sort of liberal, democratic society which the West favors. However, Taliban misrule and brutality have left most Afghans with little enthusiasm for a repeat of the past. In fact, the existing regime might prove to be more resilient than expected: contra expectations, Soviet client Mohammed Najibullah survived for three years on his own before the Mujahedeen triumphed. Most likely may be a fractured nation -- a tragedy, to be sure, but one beyond U.S. remedy, at least at satisfactory cost.
Americans have been fighting in Afghanistan for longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. America has overstayed its welcome. It's time to go home.
This post first appeared at Forbes online.