GETTING IN is so vastly more thrilling than getting out. And never underestimate the importance of the thrill—the mania of the crusade, the liberation of vengefulness, the joy of cutting loose from messy hesitations, the sheer mindless excitement of getting in and getting it on. The thrill is the great simplifier.
In the case of Iraq, it came, we will all recall, in a roar of self-righteous vindication, anguished victimhood, and a blur of bravado; with the near-dementia of “shock and awe”; in a haze of fantastical, deceptive, and self-deceptive claims about Saddam Hussein’s danger to the United States; and with the promise of jumpstarting a new world in the Middle East—parachuting democracy into Saddam’s stricken land, finishing the war that daddy didn’t finish, and all this in a fever of exultation. Never mind the downsides. Doubts were for cowards. It was George Bush’s strutters’ ball with his neocon orchestra in the make-believe ballroom.
That was then. And here we are, in a virtual consensus that after six-and-a-half years of the horrors of war the name of the game is finding a decent way out—or the least indecent one. At least, amid the rubble, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead along with more than 4,200 Americans; several million Iraqis uprooted and exiled; untold numbers of maimed, malnourished, and unemployed; massive damage to the land; and this is not to mention the damage done to American diplomacy overall—at least amid all this, some of the route to a decent exit has been built.
There is in place in Baghdad a government with some legitimacy and likewise a national army. There is a status-of-forces agreement that has already moved American forces out of the cities and requires that the rest will leave the country by the end of 2011 unless Iraqis, by referendum, decide to advance the schedule by one year. Since the United States was instrumental to stirring up the hive and stoking up sectarian fighting between Shia and Sunni (as well as other tribal fights), I think it is obliged, for some reasonable period of time, to maintain forces nearby that an Iraqi government could invite to intervene if they think it necessary to prevent carnage.
When I say this, I am presupposing answers to a set of hard questions. Who is responsible after a state commits a blunder? Can those who opposed it wash their hands—our hands—of the consequences? Can the blunderers bind the opposition—and for how long? Are the inheritors of a debt stupidly incurred responsible for the debt—and, again, for how long? In other words, is there a statute of limitations on debts incurred by an awful regime?
THESE ARE grave and serious questions, and I am not asking them rhetorically. And my answer is that to be a citizen is to bear the past on our shoulders—including the past we ourselves, right here, in the present, did not make, that we even fought to avoid. So I come to a judgment that is contingent, not absolute, and unhappy, not smug. Minimal risks to American troops are justifiable to avert still more horrible consequences in Iraq.
In other words, “out” is not a plan; it is a goal, though not a utopian one. Pull out and there will still be avoidable suffering. As always, there is that nettlesome problem of ends and means. Some ends justify some means. Just as the mindless apostles of purification claimed clean hands on the way in, there is sometimes a tendency to say that since we, who opposed the war, aren’t the ones who got in, it’s not our responsibility to explain how to get out. Since we shouldn’t have been there in the first place, our hands are clean. But there are no clean hands—for anyone—on the way out.
During the Vietnam War, when the antiwar movement was challenged with the question—what was meant to be a rhetorical question: “How can we leave?”–the common reply was, “On ships.” In the case of Vietnam, I thought—and I still think—that was the right answer. The aftermath of that hideous war was always going to be awful. And it was going to be the same kind of awfulness whether the United States accepted elections to unify the country in 1956, as the Geneva Accord required; or if it had withdrawn in 1963, when Kennedy flirted with the idea; or if it had withdrawn in 1975, as it came to pass. The Vietnamese communists were always going to win; they were always going to reunify the country, install a communist government in the South, and set up so-called reeducation camps. But if the war had ended in 1963, there would have been two or three million more Vietnamese alive. I suppose there were hardliners who would exult that there were three million Vietnamese saved from communism—because they were no longer alive. To resort to a much older saying, “better dead than red.”
The domino theory was a fraud—the dominoes, such as they were, extended only as far as Laos and Cambodia; and worse, the Khmer Rouge never would have arisen to take power without the American war. Moreover, no other outcome was remotely possible in Vietnam.
In the case of Afghanistan, 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?
One hears: “We can’t leave because leaving would empower jihadis.” But this argument is absurd—a rhetorical gesture comparable to the efforts of American presidents from Eisenhower through Nixon to not be the one who “lost” Vietnam. Staying in order not to “lose” is not a worthy purpose. Should the United States have stayed in Lebanon in 1983? As 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 US military presence in Afghanistan have a similar effect?”
Is the goal then to crush the 200 to 500 remnants of al-Qaeda? If so, this is not a convincing argument. Al-Qaeda is a stateless network. Territory is not a prerequisite for their operations. Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA counterterrorist center, wrote in the Washington Post: “When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.”
As for al-Qaeda’s remnants, they can regather in Pakistan—presumably many of them are already there—or, if they like, in Somalia. Just because Afghanistan borders Pakistan does not mean that al-Qaeda is on the way to acquiring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. And if this is a concern, there are other, less destructive, less expensive ways to safeguard them.
So the prime argument for staying in is no longer self-defense. It is to prevent the Taliban from renewing their brutal rule, in particular, their 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 to stay. But how much?
Analogies are treacherous, and you never step into the same morass twice (as Obama might say, citing Heraclitus). But the United States is stuck in a Catch-22 awfully familiar from Vietnam: The generals want a counterinsurgency campaign, but the Afghans 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 feeble-minded government of George W. Bush that had 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 make a pass at stabilizing itself without stealing an election.
Consider, for example, this New York Times report a few weeks ago:
In a [southern] region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans….[E]ven the recently appointed district governor feel[s] dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, [who]…has no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to provide health care, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About all he says he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for “vacation.”
This is after eight years of war. In the course of which, because of the ineptitude of the Bush crowd, American support for the Afghanistan intervention has gone below 50 percent and is still heading south. Historically, I know of no examples where support for a war comes back. Public support is not everything, but it is not nothing.
SO WHERE are we? In September, Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said we had to “find a way to expand and accelerate the training of the Afghan security forces.” Nicholas Kristof added: “We need to continue our presence with a lighter military footprint, limited to training the Afghan forces and helping them hold major cities, and ensuring that al-Qaeda does not regroup. We must also invest more in education and agriculture development, for that is a way over time to peel Pashtuns away from the Taliban.”
Sounds dandy. But as Michael Cohen has written, “in Iraq, it took roughly five years to create a somewhat functional security apparatus and that was in a country with a tradition of a professional army and a reasonably well-educated population—Afghanistan has neither. How long will it take to train 400,000 police and military in Afghanistan?” The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, said flatly in September that in the near or middle term, there is no reasonable “prospect that trained Afghan security forces can handle the bulk of the fighting.”
One hears it is imperative to demand accountability of Karzai’s government. In fact, we have been hearing this sort of thing for years. But the efforts have been half-hearted and the government is no less corrupt or feckless. Our carrots are stuffed into the pockets of the oligarchy and our sticks have not been much in evidence. The above-quoted Times reporter concluded that there were “serious questions about what the American mission is in southern Afghanistan—to secure the area, or to administer it—and about how long Afghans will tolerate foreign troops if they do not begin to see real benefits from their own government soon. American commanders say there is a narrow window to win over local people from the guerrillas.” Perhaps it is worth a few more months of trying but not more.
There are imponderables. And only a fool knows that matters cannot get worse. In his fine essay in the useful book Getting Out, Rajiv Bhargava argues quite carefully that if the British had stayed in India one more year and done the right things, the subcontinent could well have been spared the horrible war of partition that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
But as best as I understand matters, I very much doubt that the Afghans face a comparable situation. It’s time to change the mission to this: helping afford maximum protection to the Afghans at minimum American risk and getting out.
Todd Gitlin chairs the PhD Program in Communications at Columbia University. His next book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (with Liel Leibovitz) will be published next September by Simon & Schuster.
Photo:U.S. Marines at Dwyer Base, Afghanistan (Philippe E. Chasse / U.S. Marines)