Why is the U.S. in Afghanistan, again?
By Bill Creasy
Afghanistan has become the longest American war. Meanwhile, the reasons for the war and the definition of success have gotten harder to understand and justify.
The war started after 9/11 in order to destroy the Al Qaeda training camps. The camps were destroyed and the government of the Taliban was removed from power, in short order, by Special Forces troops and local allies. Then the U. S. was left with the policy that Colin Powell called "You broke it, you bought it." Nation building and long-term battles against Taliban rebels were the only way to preserve the gains and hold onto territory. This policy continued in spite of the Bush Administration's ambivalent ideas about nation building, and their loss of interest in Afghanistan to start another war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda members withdrew to Pakistan. That included Osama bin Laden, who withdrew to the infamous compound in Abbottabad near the military academy, where he was found and assassinated. The Pakistan government seems to have an ambivalent attitude toward restraining al Qaeda. Some parts of the Pakistan government provide intelligence and turn a blind eye to the Predator drone bombings, which have increased under the Obama Administration. Other parts of the government may see Al Qaeda and the Taliban as a cash cow for getting U. S. aid, or as potential allies against their historic mortal enemy, India.
The current U. S. position is difficult to rationalize in any military or moral sense. It is unfortunate that the Bush Administration started this war with no exit strategy, and even worse that the Obama Administration has continued similar policies. Obama has promised to begin troop withdrawals, but there appears to be no clear plan for how fast withdrawals will happen.
It would be nice for the U. S. to have a military presence and a trusted government in Afghanistan. But occupying the entire country risks American lives, costs a huge amount of money, and there is no sign that the Taliban rebels are ready to give up. The U. S.-supported government of Hamid Karzai is corrupt and unpopular.
The indefinite occupation of the entire country is unacceptable. It is too much like colonialism. With modern weapons, or even primitive IEDs, in the hands of the rebels, an occupation will lead to many lives lost.
One solution is not to try to occupy the entire country. The U. S. should carve out a city-state protectorate area as a miliary base around Kabul. The rest of the country should be left to the local people. That approach has the following advantages:
1. The U. S. could occupy this small base of operations with much less personnel than the entire country. The civil operations could be assigned to the Afghans, with support only if needed.
2. The protectorate would give the U. S. military a base for air survellance to prevent training camps from being established. They could obtain intelligence from local people. This would fulfill the real requirement to protect the U. S. from further attacks.
3. The rest of the country of Afghanistan would be unoccupied and allowed to run its own government. This eliminates the need for nation building, and removes the oxymoronic effort to impose a democracy on a people who don't seem ready or able to run it.
4. It would free up U. S. military personnel to focus on other areas of the world that are becoming terrorist sanctuaries, like Yemen, Somalia, or the Sudan.
5. The U. S. protectorate in Afghanistan would give a place of sanctuary to Afghans who fear for their lives from the Taliban. This approach should alleviate the kind of religious civil warfare that caused massive loss of life in Iraq, as neighbors of different religions attacked each other, and educated professionals were forced to flee the country. Women or children who are threatened by Taliban policies could seek refuge. This effort would require U. S. support for the refugees, but it could still be less expensive than occupying the country. At best, these refugees could be the basis for an educated economic oasis in a poor, rural landscape. It could also be a model for securing refugee populations in countries like Somalia.
For these reasons, it seems advantageous to abandon most of Afghanistan back to the inhabitants, and hold only a small area of land around the capitol city.
Of course, no one wants to see another Taliban-led Islamic theocracy. But it seems safe to say that the U. S. can't tell them that it will be a bad kind of government. They just won't take our word for it, until they try it, and they have to face the problems and resistance for themselves. The "safe zone" would give a refuge to people who are victimized, until a better system develops.
Comments are welcome.
Bill Creasy is on the board of WASH and coordinator of the Baltimore chapter.