Is there anyone still out there who thinks we can achieve our goals in Afghanistan? Yes is the short answer. Michael O’Hanlon for example. So I’ll try to reiterate why I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we need to get out as quickly as possible, without however destabilizing the situation.
Far be it from me to suggest that the homicidal behavior of a single American staff sergeant should determine what we do, or don’t do, in Afghanistan. The fact however is that incidents like the one Sunday, in which 16 Afghans appear to have been murdered by a single American, really do have a broader significance. It is just no longer possible for many–perhaps most–Afghans to support the effort we have undertaken supposedly for their benefit. The Afghan parliament has said plainly that patience is running out. Wait until they realize how long it will take before the alleged perpetrator is tried and punished!
Of course we left Afghanistan to its own devices once before, after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. That did not work out well, for us or for them. The risks are great that the scenario will be repeated. I’m not sure President Karzai will last as long the Soviet-installed President Najibullah, who managed three years. But I trust Karzai will not stay on in Kabul if the Taliban appear at its gates, as Najibullah did. The Taliban castrated him and dragged him to death with a truck, then hung his body on a lamp post.
I doubt the Taliban, who would certainly gain control of at least parts of Afghanistan upon American withdrawal, would again make the mistake of inviting in al Qaeda. There isn’t much in it for them: al Qaeda is a pan-national movement with pretensions to uniting all Muslims in a revived caliphate.
As Rory Stewart notes, we are not going to be able to get the support we need from Pakistan or create the kind of government in Afghanistan that can gain the confidence of the Afghans. The only thing we’ve got going for us is that the Afghans hate the Taliban more than they hate us, but that is cold comfort.
It may also be in some doubt: the Taliban are having at least some success in governing areas they control. Their courts dispense justice, private and even state schools use their curriculum, and some nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate. The Taliban district and provincial governors operate with increasing visibility and some degree of legitimacy.
To combat this kind of capillary presence of the Taliban, we would need to continue to distribute Americans widely in the countryside. It just isn’t going to be possible. With U.S. troops already withdrawing, the risk to Americans embedded in Afghan villages and ministries is going to rise sharply. Last month’s attacks on advisors embedded in the Interior Ministry, and the rising frequency of Afghan security force attacks on Americans, make that clear.
Like many Iraqis, at least some Afghans will come to regret U.S. withdrawal. The Pushtuns will not like dealing with the Northern Alliance, which defeated the Taliban in 2001 with help from the U.S., better than dealing with us, and many in the Northern Alliance would already prefer that we stay. Women–still not treated equally with men–stand to lose some of the enormous gains that they have made since the Taliban’s fall.
It would be a mistake to await the outcome of the negotiations with the Taliban, which could drag on for a long time. Better to go into these negotiations stating a willingness to withdraw–by the end of this year if feasible, or shortly thereafter–provided a satisfactory political solution can be agreed. That could actually accelerate the diplomacy rather than hinder it. And in any event the Taliban will know full well that public and political support for the war is fading in the United States.
What we have wanted is an Afghanistan that can defend itself and prevent the return of al Qaeda. It is hard for me to believe that we’ll get any closer to those goals by staying another three years. It is time to go. It should be done deliberately, not precipitously. But it should be done.