Gen. Stanley McChrystal's talent for broadcasting his innermost feelings to the world at large is the least of President Obama's problems in Afghanistan. In the face of rapidly rising violence throughout the country, Obama needs to decide how quickly to withdraw U.S. troops from the country.
Here are five reasons why Obama should end the Afghan war sooner rather than later:
1. Karzai hasn't changed since he fudged his re-election last year. Counterinsurgency only succeeds if you're working in support of a government capable of gaining public trust. Afghan President Hamid Karzai does not lead such a government. A network of well-connected strongmen, most prominently the president's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, still run the show in Afghanistan, and remain as unpopular among Afghans as ever. And Karzai's police force, underfunded and demoralized due to widespread graft among its upper echelons and staffed with officers who shake down Afghan civilians to supplement their wages, is utterly incapable of securing the country. In sum, the Afghan president has given NATO no compelling reason to keep writing him blank checks.
2. Early withdrawal means less cash for the Taliban. A recent report from Congress lends credence to something NATO insiders have been saying for weeks—U.S. tax dollars are flowing into the Taliban's coffers. Apparently, this is how it works: the Pentagon hires Afghan shipping companies to transport goods across the country. These companies then subcontract security for these convoys to local warlords, who in turn provide security by bribing the Taliban not to attack them. They then use whatever cash they have left to bribe the Taliban to attack convoys they aren't guarding, so as to persuade shippers to hire them next time. Since the Pentagon seems unable to prevent this from happening while U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, a withdrawal seems to be the only way to block off this Taliban revenue stream.
3. Washington wouldn't have to defend drug lords at the UN anymore. Over 30,000 Russians die each year because of opiates, 90% of which come from Afghanistan. But when Russia called on the UN Security Council to launch a crackdown on the Afghan opium trade, the United States, along with other NATO countries on the Council, quickly poured cold water on the idea. Spraying Afghan farmers' opium crops, they said, would alienate farmers and in doing so undermine McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy.
4. Sticking around won't stop Pakistan from slipping aid to the Taliban. Despite the Pakistan government's protestations to the contrary, evidence is mounting that its intelligence service, in a bid to maximize Islamabad's influence in Afghanistan and entice militants to halt their attacks in Pakistan, is supplying covert aid to the Taliban and other Afghan militant groups. Even a massive, open-ended surge won't crush the Taliban as long as its operatives can scurry across the Pakistan border any time they need more ammunition and recruits. Instead, Washington should slash its military aid to Pakistan and restore it only when its government cuts all of its ties to the Taliban.
5. The rest of NATO won't be in Afghanistan much longer. Canada, which has been Washington's key ally in Kandahar, will be out by 2011. Britain will likely withdraw soon after, along with most of NATO's European contingent. If Obama does not synch his withdrawal with his allies', it won't be long before America finds itself alone in Afghanistan.
We can't pretend that an early American withdrawal won't have consequences for Afghanistan. But it's difficult to see how U.S. forces can avoid these consequences as long as the Afghan government remains unwilling to clean up its act, and as long as Pakistan's intelligence service remains committed to propping up militant groups.
This is why President Obama should stick to his plan to start withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan in 2011, and finish withdrawing soon after.