Political leaders and military commanders will dismiss the Taliban’s recent coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul as a “one-off” incident. But the attack is a vivid reminder of how poorly things are going, and why America needs to leave.
By every measure, violence is higher than ever. The coalition and civilian casualty rate for this year is on pace to break the record for last year, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2009, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2008. Spiraling violence came after significant increases in troops and resources. Defiant optimists have claimed that with more troops comes more combat and naturally, more casualties. But to accept that things will get worse before they get better is also a slippery slope: never giving up, no matter the cost, discourages a dispassionate assessment of whether a continued investment is justified. In turn, the longer we stay and the more money we spend, the more we feel compelled to remain to validate our investment. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom, as expressed by President Obama in March 2009, is that “If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban…that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” We are also told that if America and its allies fail to create a minimally functioning government in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will collapse and its nuclear weapons will fall to the Taliban.
These claims of falling dominoes are all wrong.
First, if Afghanistan were to fall to the Taliban, it is not clear that they would again host al Qaeda—the very organization whose protection led to the Taliban’s overthrow. Besides, targeted counterterrorism measures would be sufficient in the unlikely event that the Taliban were to provide shelter to al Qaeda. Moreover, to declare that Afghanistan can never again be a base for terrorists justifies indefinite war, which does less to serve the American public and more to benefit the private industries that profit from conflict and nation-building. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that after a decade of war, more than $450 billion spent, and over 1,600 American lives lost, the United States can still be attacked by terrorists. This creates a humiliating situation in which our Afghanistan policy weakens the U.S. militarily and economically and fails to advance its vital national interests.
Second, an endless war of whack-a-mole does far more to inspire terrorists “to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” In this respect, our political leaders seem to have learned little from 9/11. The unintended consequence of U.S. intervention and meddling is that it serves as a radicalizing impetus. Regardless of what percentage of the Afghan population wants us to rebuild their country, our presence, however noble our intentions, can serve as both a method to combat insurgents and as the insurgents’ most effective recruiting tool. Aside from that “mobilizing militants” dilemma, our elimination of Taliban figures (including shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators) may very well weaken the Taliban’s chain of command, but it hasn’t resulted in a decrease of Taliban activity. Indeed, the use of IEDs has reached record highs. Worse, the insurgents’ second-largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer, with stabilization and reconstruction money often being diverted to insurgents to pay them to ensure security. Of course, they then use U.S. taxpayer money to buy bombs and explosives to kill American troops and Afghan civilians.
Finally, U.S. officials are playing with fire if they think these conditions help strengthen neighboring Pakistan. Certainly, Rawalpindi’s self-defeating support of Islamist proxies has not done its country any favors—but neither has the coalition’s presence next door. Continuing to stay the course in Afghanistan inspires the worst strategic tendencies among Pakistani military planners. It also encourages militants to attack NATO supply vehicles entering Afghanistan (nothing new), and has inadvertently contributed to the very instability that leaders in Washington ostensibly seek to forestall. As Karachi goes, so goes Pakistan, and current developments are doing more to push militants from Pakistan’s rural hinterland and into its major cities. Lastly, despite Washington’s nuclear obsessions, a large-scale foreign troop presence in Afghanistan does not resolve the ongoing rivalry between Pakistan and India. In fact, Pakistan has been accelerating its production of nuclear material for bombs and their ability to delivery them over the past several years.
In the end, the current scale and scope of the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan (over 100,000 troops and $120 billion per year from the U.S. alone) stems from overstated fears about what will follow if we fail. Luckily, America and its allies do not have to build a legitimate and stable Afghan government as an alternative to the Taliban. Al Qaeda is a manageable threat, and a conventional, definitive “victory” against them was never possible. Rather than drawing out our withdrawal and fighting an insurgency on behalf of an incompetent and illegitimate puppet regime in Kabul, American leaders should declare “mission accomplished.”