In Afghanistan, Barack Obama was stuck in an untenable trap of his own deepening, though not of his own making. His speech announced a step out?not all the way out, but out. ?All the way out? would be irresponsible, because there are many actual lives at stake, commitments to actual and not hypothetical Afghans. In old errors begin responsibilities.
The current policy, like the previous one, is incoherent; it has been incoherent for years, since it entailed occupation as a prologue to getting out. It?s best to be honest about the incoherence and head for the exits. But incoherence is the way of the world, as Max Weber taught us. Getting out much faster might well entail truly terrible results on the ground. On the other hand, the argument for not withdrawing at all, on the grounds that Afghanistan is a necessary base for fighting al Qaeda in Pakistan, would be hilarious were it not tragic. Was it long ago that we were in Pakistan to fight al Qaeda in Pakistan? Are wars three-card Monte games? But if Obama is not careful, the step out will be insufficient to protect the women and girls who have been the prime beneficiaries of the American presence.
When Dissent sponsored a forum on withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, in September 2009, I said the following, and I repeat it not because I was so clever but because I never published these remarks and because I don?t think anything substantial has changed since then:
what was originally a just war of self-defense against al Qaeda?indeed, a ?war of necessity??has devolved into an incoherent morass where the case for necessity is unconvincing. What is the justification for NATO?s war now? To avert a twenty-first-century cascade of dominoes? (?We can?t leave because leaving would empower jihadis.? But this argument is absurd. Should the United States have stayed in Lebanon in 1983? Michael Cohen has aptly asked: ?as for the notion that a NATO departure will hurt moderates and empower jihadists in the Muslim world?wouldn?t a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan have a similar effect??) Is the goal then to crush the 200 to 500 remnants of al Qaeda? Not a convincing argument. They?re a stateless network. The remnants can regather in Pakistan?presumably many of them are already there?or, if they like, in Somalia. Just because Afghanistan borders Pakistan does not get our sworn enemies very far along the way to Pakistan?s nuclear weapons. There are other, less destructive ways to safeguard those.
So the prime argument for staying in is no longer self-defense. It is to prevent the Taliban from renewing its oppression of women. This is an argument to take very, very seriously. Related to it is another preventive argument: for if withdrawal led to civil war in the north, and many more civilians were to die, it would be worth some risk. But how much?
The United States is stuck in a Catch-22 awfully familiar from Vietnam: The generals want a counterinsurgency campaign, but the Afghanis don?t trust American troops because the United States is backing corrupt warlords who are part of Karzai?s coalition. So these are the bitter fruits of the United States, under the feeble-minded government of George W. Bush, having converted a successful interdiction mission (to disrupt al Qaeda?s base) into unserious nation building under a corrupt, dysfunctional government?which despite its great moral advantage of not being the Taliban can neither protect many of its people nor even make a pass at stabilizing itself without stealing an election….
One hears it is imperative to demand accountability of Karzai?s government. We have been hearing this sort of thing for years, but the efforts have been half-hearted and the government is no less corrupt and feckless than ever. Our carrots are stuffed into the pockets of the oligarchy and our sticks have not been much in evidence.
?How long will it take to train 400,000 police and military in Afghanistan?? Michael Cohen asked then. The answer was evidently: a lot longer than the year and a half since he asked the question.
Is the reason for a good start on withdrawal fiscal? As Lawrence Kaplan wrote in Newsweek last week, the savings on 30,000 troops withdrawn are relatively trivial. The bulk of the money spent was front-loaded?building military bases, especially?and is long gone, or pissed away. The reason for withdrawal is not that economic bankruptcy looms in this still wealthy nation. It is the bankruptcy of the policy.
Finally, is Vietnam the model? It?s long past time to curb analogy creep. Even opponents of the American surge of 2009 should acknowledge that the Taliban hasn?t the military power to rival the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, who between them were the overwhelming reason why the United States had to leave Vietnam. For that matter, Vietnam?s ethnic distinctions were much different than Afghanistan?s. For that reason, among many others, the Afghan outcome is likely to be very, very different from Vietnam?s. I?m strongly in favor of a rapid phasing-out of the American military role in Afghanistan, but not because of awkward historical analogies or because something splendid, or even stable, is likely to follow from it.