I’ll confess one of the arguments that I’ve never understood is the claim that the U.S. “abandoned” Afghanistan after aiding the Mujahadeen in the latter’s battle against the Soviet Union. Yet Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apparently is the latest proponent of this view.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview broadcast this week that the United States would not repeat the mistake of abandoning Afghanistan, vowing that “both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term.”
Just what does he believe we should have done? Obviously, the Afghans didn’t want us to try to govern them. Any attempt to impose a regime on them through Kabul would have met the same resistance that defeated the Soviets. Backing a favored warlord or two would have just involved America in the ensuing conflict.
Nor would carpet-bombing Afghanistan with dollar bills starting in 1989 after the Soviets withdrew have led to enlightened, liberal Western governance and social transformation. Humanitarian aid sounds good, but as we’ve (re)discovered recently, building schools doesn’t get you far if there’s little or no security and kids are afraid to attend. And a half century of foreign experience has demonstrated that recipients almost always take the money and do what they want – principally maintaining power by rewarding friends and punishing enemies. The likelihood of the U.S doing any better in tribal Afghanistan as its varied peoples shifted from resisting outsiders to fighting each other is a fantasy.
The best thing the U.S. government could do for the long-term is get out of the way. Washington has eliminated al-Qaeda as an effective transnational terrorist force. The U.S. should leave nation-building to others, namely the Afghans and Pakistanis. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan can confront the overwhelming challenges facing both nations.