Terms of Engagement

Leaving With Honor

After Osama bin Laden's death, Afghanistan looks more like Vietnam than ever -- and for once, that's a good thing.

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

ISLAMABAD — The almost decade-long American war in Afghanistan has now reached the beginning of the end. All hopes of anything like "victory" have long since vanished, but so have most fears that falling short of victory will jeopardize American national security. The essential remaining questions, then, are what they once were in Vietnam: How fast do we leave? And what do we leave behind? My impression, after a short trip to Afghanistan, is that the United States should leave faster than President Barack Obama appears to want to, but slowly enough to give the Afghans at least a chance to stave off total collapse.

You can certainly meet officials here who believe, as Simon Gass, NATO’s new senior civilian representative, does, that "we can leave behind a stable platform" by the current 2014 target date for withdrawal. But a U.S. official with considerable experience in Afghanistan offered a much more tentative metaphor: "Can we thread the needle here by 2014?" he asked. "Yes, but it will take some luck." Pakistan would have to apply pressure to the sanctuaries where insurgents now shelter, the Afghan army would have to make major strides in professionalism, and "we’re going to need more political will expressed by President [Hamid] Karzai."

"Any sign of that?" I asked.

"No," he said, citing the Afghan president’s continuing protection of highly placed criminals and warlords and unwillingness to permit independent political institutions, including the parliament, to flourish.

So why bother at all? Why not crate everything up and leave as fast as possible? There are several answers to this question, some quite persuasive. A Taliban conquest of large parts of the country would be a terrible enough fate for the Afghan people, but worse yet would be a collapse into a 1990s-style civil war, an apocalyptic fear that is widely shared by Afghans as well as internationals. Left on its own, the army is likely to fragment along ethnic lines, thanks in part to Karzai himself, who has permitted the warlords around him to parcel out the most senior military posts to their own loyalists. The Somalization of Afghanistan would be even more dreadful than a Talibanization, and certainly yet more inviting to al Qaeda.

A more optimistic account holds that something better is in the offing on the other side of the planned national election in 2014. A new Afghanistan is struggling to be born, one often hears, an Afghanistan of institutions rather than one of tribal and ethnic loyalties. A vibrant private sector is emerging; an unfettered media, in league with civil society groups, is exposing the corruption and cynicism of the old order; a new generation has been weaned on Western ideals and technology. Mahmoud Saikal, a former deputy foreign minister and now a political opponent of Karzai’s, says that he and allies are forming a "national coalition" of such forces well in advance of 2014 to demonstrate that an alternative exists. Saikal, like other Afghans I spoke with, is worried about "America’s short-term vision," by which he means American impatience with the Afghan adventure.

That new Afghanistan is no mirage, but even by 2014 it will probably not be able to contend with the old one captained by Karzai. Even if Karzai, who is widely said to be exhausted and played out, chooses not to run once again, the power brokers in the palace will use all the means at their disposal to keep their grip on power. Karzai himself has already tried to preserve his freedom of maneuver by writing to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, asking the organization to abandon its current role overseeing national elections.

So the bridge to the future is extremely rickety, and perhaps also booby-trapped. But the U.S. official I spoke to said that he would advocate a deliberate drawdown of forces even if he thought the probability of a good outcome in 2014 was low. Hasn’t the West created a "moral hazard" for itself, he asks, by making such elaborate unfulfilled promises to the Afghan people over the years? Quite apart from any calculus of national interest, isn’t it morally unacceptable to leave the Afghans to fend for themselves?

Of course, U.S. interests in Afghanistan are very different from Afghan self-interests: The United States is there to fight terrorism, not to give the Afghans a better life or protect them from the Taliban. With the terrorist threat that prompted the war in the first place having both diminished and moved elsewhere, the United States has little reason to stay. But this is the kind of high-level arithmetic that is easy to perform only from a very great distance. Afghanistan is a heartbreaking, endlessly suffering country that lodges itself very deeply inside those who spend time there. After two visits in two years I barely qualify as a casual tourist there, but even so I don’t have the heart to argue the other side of the case.

So yes, the calculus that determines the pace of withdrawal must take account of Afghanistan’s future as well as of U.S. security interests. Even here, however, there is an important caveat. The tens of billions of dollars the United States has pumped into Afghanistan are largely responsible for the country’s massive corruption,and for the outsize power of the warlords and a new generation of power brokers. Turning off the spigot would damage Afghanistan’s economic prospects, but it would also limit the opportunities for graft and for the political power made possible by instant wealth. The same is true for the military: As long as U.S. troops are available to do the fighting, the Afghan National Army will let them do it. Dependence corrupts.

In sum, the magnitude of the commitment going forward should be determined not just by the national sense of economic depletion or by disenchantment with a decade of reckless and shortsighted military engagements, but by an honest reckoning of U.S. and Afghan interests. My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that the United States and NATO need to keep troops there until 2014, but that those troops should be going home faster, and putting the Afghan army into the lead faster, than either many Afghan leaders would like or the White House now anticipates.

But I also recognize there is a deus ex machina that could make all these fine calculations irrelevant. The killing of Osama bin Laden has made American and international officials more optimistic than they had been previously about a political deal with the Taliban. A combination of that accomplishment and American military success is said to have knocked some of the stuffing out of the insurgency. Low-level commanders have begun to "reintegrate" in larger numbers. I heard veiled rumors of talks, or talks about talks. The problem of withdrawal could solve itself if the insurgents agree to lay down their arms.

Perhaps we should recognize here not so much strategic progress as shared exhaustion. The war has gone on forever; everyone wants to go home. "Reconciliation" may be the Paris peace talks of Afghanistan: a chance to leave with "honor." As Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network put it to me, "This is about the narrative, not the result." The United States and NATO may be quite happy to bless whatever shotgun union with insurgents the Afghan government accepts. And Afghanistan, she says, would then "muddle on" as it did, for example, in the interval between the end of the Soviet invasion and the beginning of the Taliban conquest. That’s a cynical scenario; but it is also, after all, one we’ve seen before.  

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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