This past week, conservative columnist George Will shocked many conservatives by publicly calling for a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Will’s arguments are that Afghanistan is too poor and lawless to ever become a functioning nation-state anytime soon, and that the war will take too long of a commitment from American forces. Therefore, Will argues that we should cut our losses and leave now.
He is not alone. A CBS poll this past week shows that 41% of Americans want troop levels in Afghanistan decreased. Part of the poll clearly shows partisanship at work – Republicans are far more likely to disapprove of Obama’s war policies than Democrats. However, the percentage of Americans who want to begin withdrawing of Afghanistan has increased from 24% in February to 41% today.
There is a public opinion shift underway, and it is a very strange one. Despite our national myth that Americans only fight in self-defense, since gaining independence we have fought only three major wars in which we had a clear-cut, open-and-shut claim of self-defense: The Barbary Wars, World War II and the current war in Afghanistan.
The United States is a democracy, and when at war America has always faced a strong strain of domestic opposition to war. During the American Revolution, many loyalists who opposed the break with Britain fought in the British Army. The War of 1812, Civil War, Philippine-American War and World War I all saw significant domestic opposition. More recently, wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq have spawned widespread discontent amongst the populace.
However, the sizable minority (or sometimes majority) of Americans opposed to most wars have generally not been opposed to wars fought in clear-cut instances of self-defense. Domestic opposition to American involvement in World War II was negligible. So was opposition to the war in Afghanistan, until recently. What has changed? And is it reasonable to consider withdrawing from Afghanistan?
George Will’s article encapsulates many of the commonly held popular beliefs which inform the debate about Afghanistan. It also serves as an unintentional commentary on the way modern Americans perceive war.
Will argues that the American counter-insurgency strategy of “clear and hold” is ineffective in Afghanistan, because the Taliban can “evaporate and then return.” This is, of course, the entire point of a clear and hold strategy, which seeks to control territory rather than searching and destroying the enemy. In a clear and hold strategy, American forces move into an enemy controlled region. The Taliban leave, trying to avoid a pitched battle. The Americans then build a base to provide security in the region. When the Taliban return, there is now a base in the region which keeps them from re-establishing control of the area. This strategy was a major component of Petraeus’ successful campaign to turn around the war in Iraq. Now, large swaths of Iraq are peaceful and the war is all but over.
Will also brings up the drug trade issue. Yes, it is true that large swaths of rural Afghanistan produce most of the world’s opium. It is also true that much of this money goes to fund the Taliban insurgency. But Will does not explain how an American withdrawal is going to make things better in this regard. The fact is, it won’t. It will merely allow Afghanistan to become a full-blown narco-state.
Will also brings out the old canards about Afghanistan’s poverty and ineffective central government. But no one thinks Afghanistan is going to become a first world country anytime soon, and central government will always have limited power. Generally, conservatives are in favor of central governments with limited power, but Will seems to forget these conservative principles here.
Will argues that instead of trying to build a functioning state in Afghanistan that can control its territory, we should remove our troops and use drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and special forces units to keep Ala-Qaida from re-establishing bases. What Will forgets is that this was American policy towards Afghanistan before 9/11. It was abandoned precisely because it did not work, as evidence by the 9/11 attacks.
George Will’s argument is that Afghanistan is a lost cause and victory is unlikely. Once again, he forgets the many pundits that said the same thing about Iraq in 2006. But with more troops, capable leadership and new strategies, the war in Iraq was turned around. The war is now all but over. American troops are returning in victory, not in inglorious withdrawal.
Like Iraq, Afghanistan is a war we cannot afford to lose. An abandoned Afghanistan overrun by the Taliban would allow Al-Qaida to re-establish bases. And established bases means that Al-Qaida would be much close to regaining its capability to strike inside the United States. It would also make the downfall of the Pakistani government far more likely. This would potentially give Al-Qaida access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
All is not hopeless in Afghanistan. As Anderson Cooper points out, five million refugees have returned home since 2001. One in six Afghans now own a cell phone. Millions of kids, including girls, are now in school. Under the Taliban, girls were not allowed to go to school. In 2008, Afghanistan’s GDP grew by 7.5%, the 24th highest in the world. And despite well-publicized instances of civilian deaths, the rate of civilian casualties is low. About 2,000 civilians are killed each year in the war. Compare this to the height of the Iraq War, in which 3,500 civilians were being killed each month. Adjusted for population size, civilians were 20 times more likely to be killed in Iraq than in Afghanistan.
George Will has fallen into the same trap of “Gulf War Syndrome” that many American leaders as well as the American public have fallen into in the past twenty years. “Gulf War Syndrome” is the expectation that all American wars will or should resemble Operation Desert Storm. That is, they should be short, decisive, and have low American casualties. Anything less is a failure for these people.
But Desert Storm was an almost singularly decisive victory with few parallels in military history. Most wars are not that way. Most wars are long. Most wars involve high casualties. Most wars are messy, and don’t have clear endings. That doesn’t mean we can pack up and leave whenever we want. The cost is too high.
The cost of leaving Afghanistan early is high for the United States. But the cost for Afghanistan is much higher. For the United States to renege on its commitments to the country, to abandon it to the forces which at one time drove it into the ground, to abandon our allies that we at one time swore to protect, will do more damage to America in the long run than the Taliban could ever do. Because abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban is not just a matter of the United States cutting its losses.
It is a betrayal.