Whew. I feel so much better now that POTUS has assured us the US has, “begun to reverse the momentum of the insurgency,” in Afghanistan.
Oh. Sorry. Just kidding.
What it really made me think is that Mr. Obama needs to find advisors who haven’t already drunk the Kool-Aid. And / or get his own meds checked.
Here’s why . . .
Afghanistan is not a failing state. It is a non-state — a network of tribes that alternately compete and collaborate. It is a landscape of “sink holes” into which our idea of governance has fallen.
The window to shift that reality (if it ever truly existed) certainly closed with the onset of the global economic implosion. The western commitment to Afghanistan would have died of ‘donor fatigue’ and overstretch sooner or later anyway, but the meltdowns and bailouts have pushed that moment up. It is better, therefore, to leave now.
What’s the downside of an immediate departure?
Loss of prestige? The US has none to lose with any of the groups they’re attempting to defeat.
Loss of deterrence? Misapplied force encourages rather than discourages resistance.
The Taliban take over? Let them. If they succeed in governing and create development and stability, the US wins. If they fail and destroy their popular support, the US wins. (Yes, it will be difficult for some of the Afghan people, but let’s tell truths — the US didn’t care about them before 9-11, and actions have pretty well demonstrated they haven’t really cared since. And, honestly, would you rather have to wear a beard / burqa, or get smoked in an air strike?)
That al Qaeda will flourish? It’s more an identity than an entity, and you can’t defeat ideas with firepower.
The instability in Afghanistan spills over into Pakistan? Too late. That outcome was pretty much assured when the US underwrote the original Muj back in the 80’s and then walked away after the Red Army bolted. (If not in 1947, when parts of Pakistan were incorporated by force, while others were excluded by whim, such as splitting the Pashtun nation.)
The Pakistan government falls and loses control over its nukes? We’re not sure to what extent such control exists today. Nor that US presence and assistance to that government are not more destabilizing.
That heroin will flood the world? Legalize drugs and kill a major funding source for criminals and insurgents. Then shift the DEA budget to recovery and development work.
That Afghanistan will become a training ground (again) for terrorists? As long as there is a sea of disaffected people in which to swim, terrorists will exist. The solution is development and equity — not combat.
Even if all the above were to occur, such outcomes are not necessarily more or less likely whether the US stays or goes.
Science tells us it that “complex adaptive systems” (which include all human organizations, whether your family, nation states, the Taliban or the LA Lakers) cannot be precisely predicted or controlled. The behaviors and outcomes manifested by the system emerge from the complex interactions among the ‘initial conditions’ (which continually “refresh”), the rules of the system, and the relationships among the ‘agents’, or members of the system.
So US prestige / deterrence may be damaged far more by overstretch than by withdrawal.
Al Qaeda may become irrelevant even if the US leaves, or may flourish because of events far from Afghanistan.
The Taliban may win simply by outlasting the invaders. (Remember, the US has to win. They only have to not lose.) Or it may lose because a US departure robs it of legitimacy, and what’s left is a bunch of ignorant thugs the tribes eradicate.
The Pakistani government may fall because of US support, or lack of it. Or simply implode from its internal inconsistencies.
The Pak nukes may be captured by the OG’s in such a collapse, or covertly handed over by the ISI in its ascendance. (Remember A Q Khan?) Or spirited away by a brilliant covert op.
None of these outcomes necessarily emerge because of US presence or absence. They are not really within US control. (Though American policymakers cling to that illusion.)
Most important, AfPak is nowhere near as great a strategic threat to the US as another $10 trillion of national debt. American military adventures in west and south Asia appear on course to add $3 trillion plus. A bloated ‘defense’ budget, corporate welfare and bailouts are on course to add the rest.
When American voters finally figure out how to crunch those numbers, it’s turn out the lights time, because the party’s over.
Better to bail now.
The above is an update of a response to David Kilcullen’s 2/09 piece in Small Wars Journal titled, Crunch Time in Afghanistan-Pakistan, in which he called a “Prevent, Protect, Build, Hand-Off” strategy the only viable option. I suggested “Option C” — bail immediately.