Hotel Afghanistan: We Can Check Out but Never Leave

The U.S. remains stuck in Iraq, as the country moves toward a potentially messy and not so democratic (lots of disqualified parliamentary candidates, etc.) election.  Iran’s refusal to back away from its nuclear program has intensified calls for an American military strike – which, Sarah Palin assures, would even help the president politically.  North Korea unsurprisingly is showing reluctance to rejoin international talks over its nuclear program: renewed proposals for a U.S. military build-up in South Korea and even war against the North are likely to follow.  And then there is Afghanistan.

Even though President Barack Obama talks about deadlines and drawdowns, there is little in present policy to suggest that the U.S. will be able to leave Afghanistan in even the mid-term.  Afghan President Hamid Karzai certainly doesn’t think so.  He figures on U.S. military support for at least another decade, with continuing international financial support for years after that.

Reports the Associated Press:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned Thursday that foreign troops must stay in his country for another decade, as world powers agreed on an exit map including a plan to persuade Taliban fighters to disarm in exchange for jobs and homes.Divisions emerged between the U.S. and its partners over Kabul’s willingness to offer peace to Taliban leaders who once harbored al-Qaida, instead of the more limited deal for lower-ranking fighters emphasized by the Americans.

All agree that reconciliation means bringing on board what Mark Sedwill, NATO’s newly appointed civilian chief in Afghanistan, called “some pretty unsavory characters.”

The conference was called to help the U.S. and its allies find a way out of the grinding Afghan war amid rising U.S. and NATO casualties and falling public support. NATO has agreed to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces and gradually transfer more combat responsibility to them.

“With regard to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, five to 10 years will be enough,” Karzai told the BBC. “With regard to sustaining them until Afghanistan is financially able to provide for our forces, the time will be extended to 10 to 15 years.”

It sounds a bit like the Afghan equivalent of the Eagles’ Hotel California.  Defeat or bribe the Taliban and keep Karzai in power, and we will have “won” – but we still won’t be able to leave.  And the Afghan government, assuming it achieves a modicum of honest competence, will still have little incentive to meet even President Karzai’s distant check-out date.  Who in Kabul will want to do without abundent Western cash 10 or 15 years from now?

In 2001 the U.S. had a simple, important, and achievable mission in Afghanistan:  disrupt al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban.  American military forces succeeded.  Alas, we’ve spent the succeeding eight years attempting to build a nation state where none exists.  It’s time to draw down our forces and again focus on combatting terrorists.