‘Staying the Course’ Prolongs Afghan War

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on July 10, 2009.

Many prominent opinion leaders,including Henry Kissinger, arguethat America should not withdrawfrom Afghanistan because doing sowould boost jihadism globally andmake America look weak. Theyconcede that the war in Central Asiawill be long, expensive and risky, butnevertheless claim it is ultimatelyworth waging. But those argumentsand countless others rarelywithstand close scrutiny.

From a strategic and economicperspective, no tangible gains couldoutweigh the costs of Americamaintaining an indefinite presencein Afghanistan. Indeed, such acourse would be counterproductive,as the US military presence in theregion strengthens the very jihadistforces it seeks to defeat and erodesAmerica's already tatteredreputation abroad.

Take, for example, currentoperations against the Taleban,Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, theJalaluddin Haqqani network andother jihadist groups in Afghanistan.Although the US military makesevery effort to avoid civilian deaths,its air strikes kill innocentbystanders who are often used byinsurgents as human shields.

As long as militants can exploitsuch collateral damage for theirpropaganda, they will draw morerecruits to their cause and erode thelegitimacy of President HamidKarzai's regime. Remaining inAfghanistan to protect America'sreputation demonstrates flawedreasoning: prolonging combatoperations will kill even morecivilians and reinforce the narrativethat militants are fighting against theinjustice of foreign occupation.

Many analysts in Washingtonalso underestimate the importanceof history, culture and nationalism.

The Pashtunwali code of honour,the pre-Islamic tribal code to whichPashtun tribes straddling theAfghan-Pakistan border adhere,highly values honour and revenge.Collateral damage from US droneattacks in northwest Pakistan ripplesdisastrously across such a society,where personal and collectivevendettas can last generations.

People in Washington posit thethreat from extremists as thejustification for America's presence.But, far too often, those same peopleoverlook how detrimentalunwelcome American interferencecan be.

In the case of Afghanistan andneighbouring, nuclear-armedPakistan, policymakers haveneglected the extent to which theUS-Nato mission bolsters supportfor jihadists in the region.

The fear of America losing theworld's respect after withdrawingfrom Afghanistan has beeninstrumental in selling a bad foreignpolicy to the American public. It alsoperpetuates former presidentGeorge W. Bush's myopic vision thatwar enhances America's authority.

The coalition should ceasemilitary escalation and insteadprepare an exit strategy. Because, asin Vietnam, the longer America staysand the more money it spends, themore it will feel it must remain in thecountry to validate the investment.That's not a winning strategy.

Malou Innocent

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington. She recently travelled to Pakistan through the Ford Foundation