Shadow Government

The stakes in Afghanistan go well beyond Afghanistan

By Dan Twining The problem with the current debate over Afghanistan is that it is too focused on Afghanistan. There is no question that the intrinsic importance of winning wars our country chooses to fight — to secure objectives that remain as compelling today as they were on September 12, 2001 — is itself reason ...

By Dan Twining

The problem with the current debate over Afghanistan is that it is too focused on Afghanistan. There is no question that the intrinsic importance of winning wars our country chooses to fight — to secure objectives that remain as compelling today as they were on September 12, 2001 — is itself reason for President Obama to put in place a strategy for victory in Afghanistan. But the larger frame has been lost in the din of debate over General McChrystal’s leaked assessment, President Obama’s intention to ramp up or draw down in Afghanistan, and the legitimacy of the Afghan election. In fact, it is vital for the United States and its allies to recommit to building an Afghan state that can accountably govern its people and defeat the Taliban insurgency — for reasons that have to do not only with Afghanistan’s specific pathologies but with the implications of failure for the wider region and America’s place in the international system.

The surreal belief in some quarters that abandoning Afghanistan — described as a "graveyard of empires" with its complicated tribes, forbidding terrain, and peripheral strategic importance — would not have direct and bloody consequences for the United States, never mind the Afghan people, can be answered with three numbers: 9-11. It is troubling that our political and foreign policy elites even need to engage this debate (including its more sophisticated but equally illusory variants like moving to an "over-the-horizon" strike-and-retreat strategy). At the same time, the experts (correctly) advocating a counterinsurgency strategy make the same mistake of framing their arguments purely with reference to Afghanistan’s internal dynamics. As important as they are, they constitute only part of a wider strategic landscape that would be upended by a U.S. decision to reduce its political and military commitment to Afghanistan.

A recent trip to Islamabad and Lahore revealed to me that most Pakistani elites — including the small minority that could credibly be described as sympathetic to Western goals in Afghanistan — already believe that the game is up: the will of the transatlantic allies is broken, Obama doesn’t have the courage or vision to see America’s mission in Afghanistan through to victory, and the U.S. is well along the road to walking away from Afghanistan as it did after 1989. This widespread Pakistani belief has encouraged behavior deeply inimical to Washington’s regional aims, with the effect that the American debate over whether Afghanistan is worth it is inspiring Pakistani actions that will make success all the harder to achieve.

After all, why shouldn’t the Pakistani security services continue to invest in their friendly relations with the Taliban if Mullah Omar and company soon will take power in Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartland? Why should the Pakistani military take on the militant groups that regularly launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan when the NATO targets of those attacks will soon slink away in defeat? Why should the Pakistani government get serious about wrapping up the Quetta Shura when the Afghan Taliban appears to be ascendant in the face of Western weakness? Why should Pakistan’s intelligence service break its ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the world’s most potent terrorist groups, when it forms such a useful instrument with which to bleed U.S. ally India? And why should Pakistani civilian and military leaders overtly cooperate with the United States when it appears such a weak and unreliable ally of the Afghan people — incapable, despite its singular wealth and resources, of defeating a 25,000-man insurgency in one of the poorest countries on Earth?

As Chris Brose and I recently argued, it is vital for the West to prevail in Afghanistan because of its effect in shaping Pakistan’s strategic future. Proponents of drawing down in Afghanistan on the grounds that Pakistan is the more important strategic prize have it only half right: if Pakistan is the strategic prize, it should be unthinkable not to press for victory in Afghanistan given the spillover effects of a Western defeat there. All of Pakistan’s pathologies — from terrorist sanctuary in ungoverned spaces, to radicalized public opinion that creates an enabling environment for violent extremism, to lack of economic opportunity that incentivizes militancy, to the (in)security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, to the military’s oversized role in political life in ways that stunt the development of civilian institutions — all of this will intensify should Afghanistan succumb to the Taliban as the West withdraws.

These dynamics, in turn, will destabilize India in ways that could torpedo the country’s rise to world power — and the strategic dividends America would reap from India’s success. New Delhi is now a truer proponent of Washington’s original objectives in Afghanistan — the Taliban’s decisive defeat by military force rather than reconciliation and the construction of a capable Afghan democracy — than some American leaders are now. Afghanistan is in India’s backyard — they shared a border until 1947 — and the collapse of its government would destabilize Pakistan in ways that would quickly cost Indian dearly. Indian strategists fear that the spillover from a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would induce Pakistan’s "Lebanonization," with the Pakistani Taliban becoming a kind of South Asian Hezbollah that would launch waves of crippling attacks against India. India cannot rise to be an Asian balancer, global security provider, and engine of the world economy if it is mired in interminable proxy conflict with terrorists emanating from a weak or collapsing state armed with nuclear weapons on its border.

The strategic implications of a Western defeat in Afghanistan for American relations with other major powers are similarly troubling. The biggest game-changer in the nuclear standoff with Iran is not new sanctions or military action but a popular uprising by the Iranian people that changes the character of the radical regime in Tehran — a prospect one would expect to be meaningfully diminished by the usurpation through violence of the Afghan government, against the will of a majority of Afghans, by the religious extremists of the Taliban. And despite welcome new unity in the West on a tougher approach to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons following revelations of a new nuclear complex in Qum, how can Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin stare down the leaders of Iran — a potentially hegemonic Middle Eastern state with an advanced conventional and near-nuclear arsenal and a vast national resource base — if they can’t even hold their own against the cave-dwelling, Kalashnikov-wielding despots of the Taliban?

Russia appears to be quietly reveling in the prospect that NATO, which appeared so threatening to Russian eyes during its multiple rounds of enlargement during the 1990s, could be defeated in its first real out-of-area operation. A NATO defeat in Afghanistan would call into question the future of the alliance and the credibility of American leadership with it, possibly creating a new and lasting transatlantic breach and intensifying concerns about the alliance’s ability to protect weak European states against a resurgent Russia. China has no interest in Afghanistan’s collapse into a sanctuary for Islamist extremists, including Uighers who militate against China’s rule in Xinjiang. But a Western defeat in Afghanistan, which if historical precedent holds would be followed by a bout of U.S. isolationism, would only create more space for China to pursue its (for now) peaceful rise.

And that is the point: the debate over whether to prevail in Afghanistan is about so much more. An American recommitment to a sustained counterinsurgency strategy that turned around the conflict would demonstrate that the United States and its democratic allies remain the principal providers of public goods — in this case, the security and stability of a strategically vital region that threatens the global export of violent extremism — in the international system. A new and sustained victory strategy for Afghanistan would show that Washington is singularly positioned to convene effective coalitions and deliver solutions to intractable international problems in ways that shore up the stability of an international economic and political order that has provided greater degrees of human freedom and prosperity than any other.

By contrast, a U.S. decision to wash its hands of Afghanistan would send a different message to friends and competitors alike. It would hasten the emergence of a different kind of international order, one in which history no longer appeared to be on the side of the United States and its friends. Islamic extremism, rather than continuing to lose ground to the universal promise of democratic modernity, would gain new legs — after all, Afghan Islamists would have defeated their second superpower in a generation. Rival states that contest Western leadership of the international order and reject the principles of open society would increase their influence at America’s expense. Just as most Afghans are not prepared to live under a new Taliban regime, so most Americans are surely not prepared to live in a world in which the United States voluntarily cedes its influence, power, and moral example to others who share neither our interests nor our values.

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