Saturday, February 25, 2012

It is Time to Leave Afghanistan

In deciding on its foreign policy, the United States should act in its national interest, not simply out of anger, pique or frustration at particular events happening in the world.  With that in mind, I believe that it is time for the United States, and NATO, to depart Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, four American soldiers have now been killed apparently in response to an incident in which NATO soldiers destroyed Korans.  According to NATO, extremist messages had been written in these Korans by captured insurgents at a detention camp and were being used to communicate among the captives.  For that reason these books were included amongst other matter that was burned.  This was a mistake but certainly was not done out of disrespect for Islam or the Koran.

It has spawned an outpouring of anti-American and anti-NATO sentiment in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Demonstrations have been widespread and violent.  Two American soldiers were killed on a base and most recently two American officers were killed within the heavily secured Afghanistan Interior Ministry.  The Taliban has claimed credit for at least the latter killings which were in fact assassinations.  President Obama has apologized to Afghanistan for the destruction of the Korans.  But that has not contributed to any easing of the demonstrations.

At this point, I believe it is time for the United States, and NATO, to withdraw from Afghanistan, rather than doing so slowly over the next two years.  America has become stuck there as the defender of a corrupt and ineffectual regime, the Karzai government, fighting a civil war against the Taliban.  The initial purpose of America's intervention, to destroy the al Qaida force there led by Osama bin Laden that had engineered the tragedy of 9/11, has been achieved.  While some vestiges of al Qaida may remain in Afghanistan and links between the Taliban and al Qaida may persist, Afghanistan surely no longer presents a danger to the United States by providing a safe haven for al Qaida or for any other reasons.  Instead, the U.S. and NATO are again back in the business of nation-building, something we should by now have learned is beyond our ability let alone our need.  And, the Karzai government appears as corrupt and ineffectual as, if not worse than, any ally the United States has had in these kinds of wars, whether in South Korea, Vietnam or Iraq.

To be sure, departing Afghanistan now does not come without a price.  There's the usual argument that doing so gives the wrong message to American allies that we cut and run; that we make commitments but then abandon them when the going gets tough.  In this instance such an argument is meaningless, as far as I'm concerned.  The United States has been in Afghanistan for years and years.  We have sacrificed our sons and daughters and our finances but for what?  A corrupt regime there that frequently attacks America and ridicules us.  A commitment from America to assist is not a blank check for a permanent presence.

Departing Afghanistan will no doubt ultimately lead to the return of the Taliban to power.  Of course, that may be the case even if NATO remains another two years.  Indeed, media reports suggest that America, and Karzai, are already in negotiations, or trying to begin negotiations, with the Taliban.  America's national interest does not dictate that it remain in Afghanistan to ward off a return to power of the Taliban.  But its return will undermine at least some of the changes that have occurred, most particularly some steps toward the liberation of women.  Females who have stepped forward will likely be crushed by the Taliban and that is an extremely costly consequence of an end to the American presence, but despite such a tragedy it is not enough to justify a continued American military presence.

No doubt a decision by President Obama to move up the departure date of American forces from Afghanistan will lead many Republicans and other critics to claim that he mismanaged that war.  They will claim that, at least in Iraq, at the time of America's departure a government with some semblance of democratic processes and Western leanings was left in power and that little risk existed that Hussein's allies would return to power.  But, not only is it questionable that Iraq evidences a strong move toward democracy or that its government will continue to lean toward the West rather than toward neighboring Shia Iran, Afghanistan is not Iraq and Iraq is not Afghanistan.  To equate the two countries is to make another mistake.  It is about time that America stopped lumping all Muslim countries together.  While there are some regional patterns, each of these countries, be they Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Tunisia, has unique qualities that require the United States to approach each of them with distinct policies.

It is time to let Afghanistan resolve its own internal conflicts.  That will mean a continuing loss of human life as well as continued suffering by the Afghan people.  But America's presence no longer makes sense and no longer seems destined to leave things better off within any reasonable period of time, if ever.  While the American national interest includes spreading the principles of human rights, human dignity, democracy and respect for minorities, it does not dictate that America make war or participate in endless war in the name of those principles, especially when such wars often prove fruitless in the spread of those principles, or in greater national security for the United States.