I’ve been reading and brain-picking for months on this topic, trying to understand it and trying to come up with how I feel about the possibility of making a longer-term commitment to a country that is known to consume empires. It’s more than theoretical to me — a close relative spent a good chunk of his Foreign Service career in Kabul at some key historical touchpoints over the past 30 years.
I’ve read and I’ve read and I’ve read. I’ve read personal accounts of people who were not military, like Rory Stewart’s tale of walking across Afghanistan, encountering the hostile, the brave and the canine. I’ve read intelligence reports from the past and the recent present, think tank studies1 and book excerpts. And of course, I’ve asked people like my relative what they think. After all of that, here’s what I know:
- The Bush administration did an extraordinary job of committing human and monetary resources to Afghanistan without a plan and without a real commitment to the little they did promise in 2001. Because Afghanistan became Iraq’s red-headed stepchild, opportunities to keep our promises to our coalition partners and the Afghan people were lost, perhaps forever.
- Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Iraq is more analogous to Vietnam than Afghanistan.
- Afghanistan’s opium trade exceeds all other national GDP and is rising at an exponential rate.
- The Pakistani Taliban pose a greater threat to Afghanistan’s (and the world’s for that matter) security than the Afghan Taliban. While they remain Pakistan’s problem, a weak Afghanistan guarantees a more difficult road for the Pakistani government to maintain peace and order in their own country. Since Pakistan is a nuclear state, the Pakistani Taliban pose a threat to world security and nuclear balance of power.
- The Afghan people continue to suffer from the ravages of war. Women are oppressed, poverty abounds, and the opium economy benefits criminals inside and outside the country with very little reward for the people.
I have been staunchly anti-war all of my life. I protested when we went to Afghanistan because I knew it would be a long term commitment. I didn’t expect that it would become the ignored side stage to the larger circus in Iraq, though. Now that it is slowly easing its way back to center stage, I can’t simply state flatly that we should get our troops the heck out of there.
The only thing I’ve been able to conclude with any degree of certainty is that I’m grateful I’m not President Obama. I would not want to have to face a decision that has no immediate good news for anyone.
Here is my dilemma.
Leaving Afghanistan means leaving a country with a weak government which will likely topple just as it has in the past. Only this time, a government overthrow could easily place the Taliban back in power like a bacteria that has mutated from abortive antibiotic treatment. It comes back stronger and harder to eradicate the second time around, with the possibility of a more lethal result.
Leaving Afghanistan means sanctioning a thriving illegal opium market as the primary economic driver in their country.
Leaving Afghanistan means leaving men, women and children in extreme poverty with no real defense against those who exploit them.
Leaving Afghanistan means abandoning all hope of the possibility of helping to build a nation that can actually survive the regional and internal conflicts that have torn it apart in the past.
Leaving Afghanistan means breaking promises we made when we sent our troops there.
I’m sure my fellow progressives and Democrats will demand my card at the door for the conflict I’m feeling over this. From everything I read, their answer is to get out and stay out, that it’s a losing proposition and we’re better off cutting our losses and moving on.
The problem I have? Accepting the idea that while it’s fine to pay verbal service to the poverty and genocide in the world, we’re unwilling to make a sacrifice to actually help end it. Our fight in Afghanistan doesn’t seem to be a fight for domination of their country, but for stabilization and a pathway to a self-sufficient, self-governing Afghan state.
Mostly, though, I just have questions and more questions, with very little in the way of an absolute sense of what the best way to proceed really is.
Talk me down. Leave a comment, tell me why I’m wrong, or right, or full of it, or just another bleeding heart liberal with no sense of practical action. I have no answers, so you’ll either answer my questions or you’ll raise more.
Update #1: Cool Rebel argues for a bold solution involving Pakistan and Iran.
1This is a great collection if you’re interested in scholarly works
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