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America in Afghanistan: Do Good Intentions Justify Our Presence?

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The question is, since U.S. troops have recently unintentionally burned Qurans, intentionally urinated on dead Taliban Afghans, and maliciously murdered 16 Afghan citizens by solider acting out of the chain of command, are we doing ourselves more harm than good by being there? Afghanistan's president called the murder of 16 Afghans an "unforgivable" crime. What will be the repercussions of one solider to all U.S. soldiers in the country? Is it worth it to be there any longer?

American soldiers have been in Afghanistan since Oct. 7, 2001. After the summer of 2012, there are expected to be 80,000 troops in Afghanistan. The primary stated reason for remaining in Afghanistan is one whereby the U.S. believes that it will enhance its own security by enhancing the security and stability of Afghanistan. Conventional wisdom maintains that without a U.S.-led effort in the country, the country may fall under the control of the Taliban and this could provide an opportunity for Al Qaeda to revive itself.

Even with Osama Bin Laden dead, 58 percent of Americans polled think that the United States has not completed its primary mission in Afghanistan and the surrounding areas. U.S. support for a U.S. presence in Afghanistan has diminished over recent years. In 2007, 56 percent of respondents said the war was worth fighting. However, as recent as March 2012, polls show that 60 percent say the war is not worth it.

No one has a crystal ball and can say with any level of certainty what may or may not happen if the U.S. leaves or stays in Afghanistan. But educated guesses based on available evidence can be offered.

The Scenario if We Stay
If the U.S. remains in Afghanistan, it will continue to do as it has done for the past decade: to provide security to the people of that country and to help the government and security forces administer the country on its own.

If the goal is to have an independent nation, the degree to which we have been successful is debatable. Corruption is rife in Afghan politics. Moreover, if the U.S. stays with a NATO contingent, the U..S will continue to borrow money it does not have from places like China, who economically benefits from the improved security that is being paid for and provided by the U.S.

Additionally, Al Qaeda sympathizers continue to have a casus belli if the U.S. stays in a Muslim nation, especially so if the U.S. makes future blunders as it has in the past. Blunders and events outside of the chain of command are not received as not what the U.S. stands for but what the US permits and even condones.

The Scenario if We Leave
First, we must ask: What does our military presence in Afghanistan do at present? It provides training for a stable government against the Taliban; it emboldens Al Qaeda sympathizers; and it both provides good and bad examples to the Afghan people, to name a few.

The counter-factual asks: What would it look like if we left?

One involves that the Taliban may come back to power and the country would revert back to what it was in August 2001, less the presence of Al Qaeda. This may happen, but it is unlikely. While there is a somewhat split feeling of appreciation and annoyance of the presence of Western soldiers, the people prefer a more civilized, safe and free nation than what they experienced under the Taliban. Rather than a resurgent Taliban, we are more likely to see a civil war and then a return of Western support before a Taliban take over of the country.

On the other hand, if the West abandons Afghanistan as it once did, there is reason to believe that the Taliban may be able to mount an effective campaign to take back the country. For example, the Taliban receives unofficial support from the Pakistani ISI, which is more organized and capable than the fledgling Afghan security forces. Due to historic tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pakistan can benefit from an ally in Kabul.

If our concern is terrorism, the Taliban is unlikely to permit Al Qaeda to maintain a safe haven in Afghanistan after the negative outcome of 9/11. Much has been written about the tension between Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the weeks and months prior to 9/11. For Al Qaeda, a withdrawal of the U.S. may not mean much. The Taliban is unlikely to harbor what is left of Al Qaeda, but more importantly, Al Qaeda has morphed more from an organization with a head, than an idea. From this point of view, staying in Afghanistan is reason for that idea to live on; the presence of U.S. troops who either act outside of the chain of command or unintentionally is a casus belli for Al Qaeda sympathizers. A resurgence of Al Qaeda may not be as much of a concern as is often discussed.

Alternate Support Options
The U.S. cannot maintain a presence in Afghanistan indefinitely. It is costly and overtime it enables a government that must stand on its own. Other major nations may step up. Who are they and what may they do?

The EU has its own problems and it cannot afford to get involved in Afghanistan. Russia won't get involved for obvious reasons. Japan can't afford it and India will be resisted by Pakistan.

Iran would certainly like to have presence in Afghanistan, however, Iran is unlikely in a position where it can offer much assistance. Inflation is around 20 percent, unemployment over 12 percent and economic growth around 1 percent. Iran has its own problems to contend with.

Pakistan is already trying to gain a foothold in its long time antagonist. Pakistan's primary security concern is India, not the Taliban or Al Qaeda. With this in mind, Pakistan is more likely to seek undermine Afghanistan's development, if for no other reason than Afghanistan is an ally of India.

China may not be well received in Afghanistan if China acts in an imperialistic manner. China is also a country that places its own thirst for economic development ahead of human rights. However, if China's role in Afghanistan brings prosperity to the people, China may be well received. But if China's economic policies only enrich the wealthy and ruling class in Afghanistan, China may be resisted by the people if they are aware of what is going on and who to blame.

No Good Options
As with most international crises, there are no good options. First, we must ask: Is this still our war to fight? As long as we say, 'yes, this is still our war', the best option is for the U.S. to maintain a disciplined military and to watch for trouble signs such as: insensitivity towards the Muslim cultural, TBI, PTSD, and troop aggression towards the indigenous population. Considering that there are tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and incidents of dishonor are rare, and that, but for these isolated incidents, Afghans feel the U.S. presence keeps them safe from the Taliban, it is safe to say that the U.S. presence has overwhelmingly been a positive one. The challenge we now face is to keep our presence from becoming one of diminishing returns, and one where our blunders do more harm than good.

PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East and was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarment Studies. He has a masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.