One of the better foreign policy movies is Charlie Wilson’s War, a story about how a relatively obscure Texas Democratic Congressman helped guide the US towards funding the largest covert operation in history. To be sure, it ended up covert in name only, as it was clear to everyone by the mid eighties that US support was fueling the Afghan mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets.
The film is delightfully entertaining and demonstrates how some of the inner workings of DC politics and bureaucracy can impact policy. In the public eye the President takes the lead, but rarely is it that simple. The film also shows the dangers of blow back. The mujahideen, or “soldiers of God” were fiercely anti-Communist. There’s a scene in the film where the Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chair Doc Long is giving a speech in Afghanistan, telling the people that they would win because it is good vs. evil, and God is on their side. Seen now in the light of 9-11, it the exuberant reaction is eerily frightening. Yes, this was a movie, but CNN’s Cold War series also shows then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saying essentially the same thing in 1980.
More poignant is the fact that in hindsight its obvious that the side we were supporting turned against us. It’s clear that while Pakistan was helping us beat the Soviets by funneling weapons to the rebels, they were choosing the most extremist groups to fund, ignoring others like the fighters of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was more moderate. Massoud, a leader of a group called the “northern alliance” got virtually none of the weapons and was himself assassinated on September 9, 2001 to try to disrupt the anti-Taliban forces just before the 9-11 attacks. In fact, the Taliban itself was a creation of the Pakistani secret police, the ISI.
In most foreign ventures the US tries to get by “on the cheap.” It’s politically and economically costly to send troops and personnel into diverse conflicts, especially when it’s not clear why the conflict is important. Look at what happened in Vietnam and Iraq, after all!
Even in Afghanistan in 2001 the US tried to outsource most of the fighting to the Northern Alliance, allowing them to defeat the Taliban. The US seemed not to really get all the rivalries and intricacies of Afghani culture and politics, for soon the US pushed off responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan to NATO and shifted attention to Iraq. That’s where the neo-conservative dream of the US transforming the region and spreading democracy went up in flames.
As Iraq was becoming increasingly critical, Afghanistan was slowly disintegrating. It started with stories of a Taliban resurgence, growing corruption, and a lack of control of most of the country by the central government in Kabul. By the time the Iraq war had finally been ended Afghanistan became the dominant security problem. President Obama tried to solve it in typical US fashion – on the cheap.
Rather than leave or go in big, he opted for a smaller force designed to train the Afghans so they eventually could handle their own affairs. After some major fighting to try to put the Taliban off balance, the effort shifted towards an advise and assist role. But we are still there.
The argument for staying is that we need to avoid neglecting Afghanistan like we did after 1989. We need to make sure that if the Taliban does become part of government, it will be a reformed Taliban. We need to have boots on the ground to act in the name of counter-terrorism thanks to residue al qaeda and Taliban operatives who still dream of hitting the US.
None of those arguments are persuasive. All could be done through covert operations, information sharing, and the usual counter-terrorism methods. It’s likely that a total withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan in 2012 instead of 2014 (about 90,000 are there now) would not alter the long term course of the country. In fact, it might even help.
Consider two recent incidents: violence caused by Koran burnings by the US military, and a rogue soldier who went on a rampage and killed at least 16 civilians. The cost of these incidents is immense. It does more to push people away from a pro-US position than anything the Taliban could do, and undermines both the safety of the troops and the potential success of the mission. Arguably it makes those who work with the US look like collaborators with a foreign occupier.
The US has been in Afghanistan for over ten years — longer than the Soviets were there. The famed “killer of empires” hasn’t brought the US down, at least not yet, but it has proven itself again unconquerable. 60% of Americans now say the war wasn’t worth fighting. Originally anger at Osama made the war immensely popular, President Obama called it ‘the good war’ in the 2008 campaign. Now, people want out. It’s a drag on US policy, the military, and our efforts to win hearts and minds in the Islamic world.
There will be a lot of pondering on what went wrong, could things have been done differently, were we wrong to choose war in 2001 or whether or not we misread and misplayed Pakistan and other regional powers. While President Obama’s caution about leaving too quickly is understandable — and certainly based on military advice, since this is one President who listens to his advisers — it’s time to extricate ourselves from this situation. Osama bin Laden is dead, al qaeda is in shambles, and the world is a much different place than in 2001. It’s not fair to our military personnel to keep them in a fight that will have no clear end, and which has already caused hardship and harm to many military personnel and their families. It’s not in our national interest to let this conflict continue to drag the country down. Time to come home.