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It’s time to leave Afghanistan

When President Obama addressed the nation from Bagram Air Base last May with an update on our current withdrawal plans, Americans should have asked have we fought the good fight in Afghanistan? President Obama once called our engagement over there “the good war.”  After all,  Afghanistan was where the 9/11 attacks were first pitched to bin Laden and provided a place where training of al-Qaeda operatives could go unfettered.  However, with relations deteriorating due to the inadvertent Koran burnings, the rampage by a U.S. soldier that left sixteen Afghan civilians dead, and general war fatigue thatpervades the American public – it may be time for us to sprint for the exit.

President Obama attempted ameliorative measures to reverse our unfavorable position in the country by firing commanding officer Gen David. D. McKiernan, replacing him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and instituting a surge of his own by deploying 30,000 new troops.  He doubled down on counter-insurgency and made “clear, hold, and build” the major cornerstone in the Afghan war policy.

However, the reason why “clear, hold, and build” was successful was due to Iraq having a literate population, a national infrastructure, and a recognized political leadership. While not all Iraqis might not have liked Nouri al-Maliki, they viewed him as the legitimate leader in the country. The Iraqi people, tired of the bloodshed, assisted coalition forces in finding IEDs and high level insurgent leaders in what was called the “Sunni Awakening.” The Bush surge helped curb the violence and allow the fledgeling Iraqi government to function properly.  They were able, more or less, to win the hearts and minds of the people

As mentioned in a previous post, Afghanistan has very little resembling a national infrastructure, no intellectual elite, a more rigid tribal system, and a population that is mostly illiterate.  This has been incredibly problematic in the training of their armed forces. The inability and intense reluctance of the Karzai administration to combat administrative corruption is a major point of contention since it effectively blocks our exit out of the country through a legitimate transfer of power.  This is a key element in counter-insurgency strategy.  Furthermore, so is winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, which hasn’t been all that successful giving the felonious activities of the national police.

The corruption in the Afghan police force is one of the most pressing issues facing coalition forces. The police are one of the most visible representatives of the Karzai administration and intermediators between the state and its citizenry. The corruption of Afghanistan’s police force has further damaged Karzai’s administration and fueled the insurgency, although new polls show signs of improvement ever since the UK has taken over police training policy.  The last presidential election signaled more trouble since it was marred by allegations of voter fraud and ballot stuffing that hurt Karzai’s credibility even further.   On top of this catastrophe, our allies are making the military situation inflexible.

Out of the 100-120,000 troops in ISAF, 90,000 are American.  The rest of our European allies have placed almost comical caveats concerning their rules for engagement.  German troops are barred from conducting night operations and will only engage the enemy if they’re within two hours from a hospital.  Some nations won’t do anything once snow falls and refuse to transport Afghan personal on their helicopters.  The same applies to some NATO-ISAF troops too.  In all, fifty national caveats on troop deployments and engagements are making logistics, combat operations, and tactical maneuverability rather impossible.  As a result, our strategy is bogged down irreparably.

I supported the Obama surge, but I feel I should have taken George Will’s column about withdrawal more seriously. I felt, as the military did, that we could duplicate the success we’ve had in Iraq.   However, the consequences of leaving are similar to the ones we face in Iraq.  Brookings’ Michael E. O’Hanlon and Bruce Reidel wrote an op-ed in USA Todayback in September of 2009 where they reiterate three points on why “going small” was frivolous.  It was printed during the debate about the Afghan surge.

The fundamental reason that a counterterrorism-focused strategy [Biden's approach] fails is that it cannot generate good intelligence. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban know not to use their cellphones and satellite phones today, so our spy satellites are of little use in finding extremists. We need information from unmanned low-altitude aircraft and, even more, from people on the ground who speak the language and know the comings and goings of locals. But our Afghan friends who might be inclined to help us with such information would be intimidated by insurgent and terrorist forces into silence — or killed if they cooperated — because we would lack the ability to protect them under a counterterrorism approach.

[...]

The second reason a counterterrorism-oriented strategy would fail is that, if we tried it, we would likely lose our ability to operate unmanned aircraft where the Taliban and al-Qaeda prefer to hide. Why? If we pulled out, the Afghan government would likely collapse. The secure bases near the mountains of the Afghan-Pakistan border, and thus our ability to operate aircraft from them, would be lost. Our ability to go after Afghan resistance fighters would deteriorate. And the recent momentum we have established in going after Pakistani extremists would be lost.

[...]

Third, we would likely lose our allies with this approach. A limited mission offers nothing to the Afghans, whose country is essentially abandoned to the Taliban, or to the Pakistanis, who would similarly see this as the first step toward cut and run. The NATO allies would also smell in a “reduced” mission the beginning of withdrawal; some if not most might try to beat us to the exit.

Once the Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda will not be far behind. Our top nemesis will be able to salvage a victory in the very place from which it launched the 9/11 attacks eight years ago. Al-Qaeda will have its favorite bases and sanctuaries back, as well as a major propaganda win.

Furthermore, Afghan women would endure another phase of brutality after our departure and the Karzai government would probably collapse sending the nation into turmoil. Even when the situation on the ground began to deteriorate, O’ Hanlon and Reidel doubled down in their March 2012 article featured in Foreign Policy magazine.

Despite the recent rash of tragedies involving Afghan attacks on NATO troops, there are important indicators that Afghan security forces are improving too — not enough to quell the insurgency, but enough to prevent Taliban reconquest of the country’s major cities and transportation routes even after 2014, when U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the current NATO mission in Afghanistan will end. Afghan security forces are securing Kabul largely on their own. They provided at least half of combined forces on major operations in the south in 2010 and 2011 and are increasingly in the driver’s seat in parts of that region now. And Afghans from the south are also starting to join police forces in substantial numbers.

All is not well, of course. Afghanistan’s east was 20 percent more violent statistically in 2011 than in 2010, as insurgents belonging to the infamous Haqqani network and others wreaked havoc, and international forces remain underresourced there. Obama’s decision to accelerate the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 100,000 to 68,000 by this September will impede the previously planned reinforcement of foreign troops there. If, as recently announced, France withdraws its troops more quickly than previously expected, that also will hurt stability in the east.

O’Hanlon and Reidel reiterate the strategy of working with the Afghan security forces to secure parts of southern Kabul, especially the ring road that leads to Kandahar to allow safe traveling and protection of the capital.  However, they say that the layered defense of the road is good, but it needs to be worked on with the help of Afghan forces.  Furthermore, keeping the nation stable until we’ve reached the goal of 350,000 equipped Afghan police and army units is essential.  A goal they say can be achieved by 2013 or 2014 if we remain diligent.

However, like Iraq, the Afghans are going to need, “even after 2014, international support…[as] 10,000 to 15,000 foreign troops will be needed in Afghanistan to help with training, mentoring, air support, special operations, and logistics. If the United States cannot work out a deal on this matter now with Kabul, it should simply keep trying next year, after the U.S. presidential race.”  Additionally, on top of dealing with corruption on Karzai’s government, there’s the issue of his successor.

O’Hanlon and Reidel also wrote that “the Afghan Constitution requires him to step down in 2014, and the United States must insist that this happens. It is crucial to the development of an institution-based Afghan democracy: Only when citizens experience peaceful transfers of power can they truly begin to place more faith in institutions and offices rather than individuals. Despite some recent reports to the contrary, Karzai may be happy to secure a much-deserved retirement, but many of his supporters will likely seek to persuade him to stay on, given their uncertainty about what would come next.”

This is a coherent strategy.  One that is seldom articulated by either Mitt Romney or President Obama, but we should still cut our losses.  The O’Hanlon/Reidel article was written before the spike in attacks by Afghan security forces on American troops. A development, which prompted  the heavily curtailment in joint operations with Afghan forces last month.  Furthermore, the tribal societal dynamics will always be a major obstacle in fostering cooperation.  A lesson we seem to forget since Libya has a similar social structure.  We have allies whose capabilities are hindered by caveats and it’s safe to say that no political progress can be made with Karzai still in power.

Our relations with the population have deteriorated, which has been exacerbated over the “Innocence of Muslims” debacle, which was used as cover to execute a terrorist attack in Libya.  On top of keeping key population centers safe and out of Taliban hands, we have to deal with their illiteracy. As if counter-insurgency doesn’t have enough to deal with, we have to educate them as well.   In our longest war, we have made fragile gains that aren’t worth the amount of blood and treasure we have invested in this venture. Nation-building, as a facet of American foreign policy, is still a silly exercise that, besides its arduousness, lacks the long-term commitment of the American people.

This is the classic example of government trying to do too much.  Any chance of success rests with more troops, but the political will is not there.

On the other hand, while Iraq is still a tribal society, they have more facets of a functioning society to work with concerning building a strong socioeconomic foundation.  Furthermore, they’ve proven themselves in defending and expanding government control over insurgent strongholds, putting sectarian divisions by the wayside to foster cooperation, and held elections that, for the most part, weren’t heavily affected by fraud.  While both nation’s pose the risk of having Al-Qaeda re-establish themselves, the United States has mostly defeated them in Afghanistan.  However, in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AIQ) has seen a resurgence.

In all, there’s much more in infrastructure in Iraq to  work with and foster positive results than in Afghanistan.  As our fight with mostly Taliban forces continues, it should be noted that the political class has given up on the campaign to ensure their destruction.  Tony Karon wrote in Time on October 3 that “Washington has known for years that it had no hope of destroying the Taliban, and that it would have to settle for a compromise political solution with an indigenous insurgency that remains sufficiently popular to have survived the longest U.S. military campaign in history. Still, as late as 2009, the U.S. had hoped to set the terms of that compromise, and force the Taliban to find a place for themselves in the constitutional order…but the surge ended last month with the Taliban less inclined than ever to accept U.S. terms as the 2014 departure date for U.S. forces looms.”

Karon gives his best case scenario and it isn’t good.

…according to the Times, the best case scenario has been reduced to on in which, as a result of NATO’s training and armaments, “the Taliban find the Afghan Army a more formidable adversary than they expect and [will] be compelled, in the years after NATO withdraws, to come to terms with what they now dismiss as a ‘puppet’ government.” Some would see that as another in a long line of optimistic assessments.  The Afghan security forces, or at least its ethnic Tajik core, may well find the political will to fight the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, and the means to prevent themselves from being overrun. But it’s a safe bet that the security forces will control considerably less Afghan territory than NATO forces currently do.

Concerning O’Hanlon and Reidel’s point that the U.S. must insist Karzai go after the end of his second term – Karon wrote that “there are serious doubts that an election scheduled for 2014 …will be any more successful in creating a new national consensus than previous, crooked elections have been. Karzai, in fact, but is believed to be preparing to run his older brother, Abdul Qayum, in his stead, and keep power within his immediate circle.”

The cancer continues to spread and we have no way out that is in accordance with our counter-insurgency mission.  With a hazy political future and the war running a price tag of $500 billion dollars and counting, do we want to leave when the situation is bad or disastrous?  While I maintain that America suffers from a destructive lack of Realism, I’ve come to see that Iraq, not Afghanistan, is the more critical theater.  The irony is that Afghanistan had direct ties in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attack, while Iraq did not.  Yet, the chance of success is much greater with Iraq, which we invaded on the basis of shaky intelligence.  Such is the anarchic world of international relations and foreign affairs.  Heritage Foundation said on October 8 that “we can’t give up on Afghanistan.”  However, I’m saying ‘UNCLE!’

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