Normally I enjoy reading the posts by John Hinderaker at Powerline, but his recent post is an exception. With a strange bit of melancholy or resignation, John argues that it is time to pack up and quit Afghanistan. I will detail this in a bit, but suffice it to say that I found most of his arguments shallow and unpersuasive.
Even so, I would not bother making John’s post the subject of my own, but for two things that alarm: (1) Powerline has one of the highest levels of readership in the blogosphere, so its opinions reach a lot of people, aggravating the damage; (2) this recent post seems to be indicative of a growing opinion among conservatives (as shown by the large, positive response it has received so far).
So here goes.
Here are the reasons supplied by John Hinderaker for calling it quits. After stating that he supports the initial attack to chase Al Qaeda out of its bases in Afghanistan, he sees the ensuing efforts differently:
Since then, for going on nine years, we have pursued a somewhat half-hearted peacekeeping/democracy policy in Afghanistan. The Bush administration was right, I think, not to devote excessive resources to Afghanistan, which is virtually without strategic significance compared with countries like Iran, Iraq and Egypt. Moreover, the country’s human natural and human raw material could hardly be less promising.
Afghans are not just living in an earlier century; they are living in an earlier millenium. Their poverty, cultural backwardness and geographic isolation–roads verge on the nonexistent–are hard for us to fathom. They are a tribal society run by pederasts whose main industry is growing poppies. If our security hinges on turning this place into a reasonably modern, functioning country, we are in deep trouble. But I don’t think it does; and, in any event, I don’t think we can do it.
In large part, our effort in Afghanistan has been devoted to protecting normal Afghans against extremists like the Taliban. But, as the current rioting in Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and elsewhere reminds us, there there may not be a lot of daylight between the Taliban and more moderate Afghan factions.
For Hinderaker, Afghanistan and its people are pretty worthless, to put it bluntly. No “strategic significance compared with…Iran, Iraq and Egypt.” The country is devoid of raw materials or human potential. In his view, it is such a backward, black hole of inhumanity that any change is hopeless. Even Obama, presumably, wouldn’t try to sell his snake oil there. The rioting there over the Koran burning is proof of sorts, he says, that the country is hopeless.
I hate to say it, but this is just lazy, generalized thinking.
It is very tempting thinking, however. There is certainly alot of things about Afghanistan that repulse our cultural sensitivities and it is indeed easy to see the depths to which the country has sank and believe it has always been this way, but this is not a reason for leaving, in and of itself. It is just letting our prejudice show. It is hard to remember as far back as the 1960’s, but Afghanistan had a functioning monarchy with a tolerable standard of living in Kabul and prospects for reform and political rights up until the communist takeover in 1978. What Afghanistan has become, after 30 years of war, brutal totalitarian rule and the importation of strict, Islamic codes, is not what is has always been nor its eternal fate.
As for the claim that Afghanistan has no strategic value, that is at least a debatable point. If we had a coherent and consistent foreign policy that looked at the broader interest of the U.S. in the region, Afghanistan has significance. If, for example, we had a foreign policy that recognized the dire threat that the Iranian regime poses to the entire Middle East (and beyond), the ability to stage forces on both sides of Iran— in Iraq and Afghanistan– would enable the U.S. to effectively aid insurgents and opposition groups in Iran.
Having a presence in Afghanistan also gives the U.S. a key leverage point and access to Pakistan. Like it or not, nuclear Pakistan is a major threat to the U.S. so long as it teeters on the edge of political instability and the possibility of the Islamofascists getting their nukes. The U.S. has a natural affinity with India that could be cultivated into a strategic partnership in the region as a counterbalance to China and the growing Islamofascist threat in Pakistan. Afghanistan is valuable to that partnership as well and we could be doing much more to involve India.
Hinderaker believes Afghanistan is worthless, a view not shared, however, by Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Muslims, the Tsarist Russians, the British Empire and the Soviet Union.
I think that the heart of the problem for Hinderaker and other conservatives when it comes to Afghanistan is the notion of “turning this place into a reasonably modern, functioning country…” In many circles, you can add in “democracy” to that list. This has been the great mistake of our involvement in Afghanistan.
Our first and primary goal in Afghanistan should always have been to establish security, period. Without security first, every, other goal is like piling up sand on the beach. Security against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is a limited, achievable goal. It is measurable victory. And, once established, it creates the necessary space and stability for the kind of investments and social reforms that, over the long term, can make a real difference in the development of the country. The problem for the U.S. has been that we have been way too ambitious, trying to establish security and establish a democratic government and re-build their infrastructure and make it into a “modern, functioning” country.
This is analogous to a man, near starvation, who is rescued and then force-fed a king’s banquet: it will kill him. His shriveled stomach is not ready for that. After such deprivation, he needs a little bit at a time, slowly and carefully. Afghanistan is the same way. After over twenty years of ruin and oppression, we cannot descend upon the country and begin force-feeding it with hundreds of billions of dollars in aid for every conceivable project, no matter how well-intentioned. We have almost literally been killing Afghanistan with kindness. Funny how they don’t appreciate it.
The mistake that Hinderaker makes is looking at the process and concluding that the entire enterprise is worthless or hopeless. They seem to have gotten discouraged because all of our ‘force-feeding’ has not brought a miracle cure. Their answer, to throw the hapless man back in the desert to starve again, is absurd. Rather, they should see our actions to this point in Afghanistan as the excessive blunder it has been.
If the U.S. had been single-mindedly pursuing security and the elimination of the Taliban since 2001, we might well have drawn down our troop levels there to some border outposts to interdict insurgents from Pakistan while leaving the interior to ANA forces that would have had almost a decade of solid training by now. Even if you view the ANA as a hopeless project, at the very least we would have had time to establish local militias that would keep the peace in their locale and govern themselves. We would not have diverted billions of dollars to a corrupt, central figurehead like Karzai. All of these things feed the disenchantment that Hinderaker and others feel.
But just because mistakes have been made– even terrible mistakes– should not give way to careless analysis and spotty observations. It should, instead, be a call for better policy.
When Hinderaker turns to the consequences of quitting Afghanistan his view is rather limited:
Is there a danger that if we leave, the Taliban will re-take control and, perhaps, invite al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to join them? Yes. However, it it not obvious that, after what happened in 2001, the Taliban will be quick to make its territory, once again, into a launching pad. If they do, one would hope that drones, bombs and perhaps the kind of small-scale insertion of troops that we mounted in 2001 will be an adequate response. In any event, when it comes to harboring terrorists, I am a lot more concerned about Pakistan than Afghanistan.
The war in Iraq is over, and has been for some time. Our mission there has been a success; how important a success depends not on us but on the Iraqis. For a predominantly Arab country, Iraq is doing well. At this point, we have done about all we can do. Our troops are no longer in a combat role, and we should bring them home, and honor their victory, on schedule.
There are several problems in these paragraphs.
First, as John admits, it quite possible (I would say likely) that the Taliban will allow Al Qaeda and its affiliates to set up shop again in Afghanistan. For him to say, however, that we should “hope that drones, bombs and perhaps the kind of small-scale insertion of troops… will be an adequate response” is fanciful.
Those “drones” and “bombs” have to come from somewhere. If we pull out, there will no longer be any bases from which to fly the drones and the “secret” bases in Pakistan will likely be closed down as well once it is clear to the Pakistanis that we are done. As for the “small-scale insertion of troops,” I assume he is referring to the SOF and CIA teams that partnered with the Northern Alliance forces and rained down smart munitions on the Taliban positions. Trouble is that there will be no Northern Alliance forces for these teams to partner with if we pull out.
Second, if the U.S. pulls its forces out as John suggests, there is very little likelihood that those forces will ever return again. Even if the U.S. was capable of flying in sorties of long-range bombers and sending in cruise missiles, Al Qaeda has learned a thing or two since 2001 about nullifying the effects of long-range munitions. Al Qaeda can expand into the remote areas of Afghanistan where the U.S. will be increasingly helpless to affect. With the bombing option of little use, what chance is there that the American people will want want to re-commit troops after having gone through the national trauma of pulling forces out in disgrace? (And I dare anyone to say that doing so at this juncture would be anything other than a U.S. humiliation). It is not going to happen.
Third, are we willing to face the unbelievable humanitarian crisis that will result when the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan? Are we willing to accept into the U.S. as refugees the hundreds of thousands of Afghans that Hinderaker denigrates as “pederasts” and “tribal” and hopelessly backward? We still have an ugly spot on our national honor from abandoning South Vietnam to the communist killers. Anyone remember the Boat People? The world well remembers how we abandoned the shia in Iraq to Saddam’s mass executions and tortures in 1991. Are we willing to endure yet another flag of shame in Afghanistan?
Finally, the view espoused by Hinderaker and others is incredibly short-sighted. Our best hope of eliminating Al Qaeda or keeping them disrupted is by having troops and bases in Afghanistan that allow us at least the option of ground action against their sanctuaries in Pakistan. The only reason that we can even contemplate leaving Afghanistan is because we have not suffered any large-scale attacks since 2001. That is remarkable in itself and should be kept in mind when contemplating withdrawal.
Our continuous presence in Afghanistan, while extremely problematic, deeply flawed and poorly run, gets at least some credit for keeping Al Qaeda on the defensive and ill-prepared to mount another large-scale attack against the U.S. If, God forbid, Al Qaeda should pull off another 9/11-type attack and we can trace its origins to the Pakistani FATA camps, do you think we will want U.S. combat forces right next door in Afghanistan to go in and wipe out every, last camp and terrorist hideout? You bet we will. But if those forces are gone, our ability to make Al Qaeda pay (and to force our will upon Pakistan if they resist us crossing the border) is neutered.
(I cannot in good conscience leave off here without at least commenting on John’s statements above about Iraq. As Herschel Smith has said on more than a few occasions, the U.S. achieved an incredible feat of arms in 2006-2007 by taking it to Al Qaeda and Sadr’s illegal militias only to risk most of those gains by hastily agreeing to a status of forces treaty with Iraq that severely restricted our forces there. Since Obama’s election, the U.S. has been withdrawing troops at a pace that further jeopardizes our hard-won gains in security there. Too much American blood and treasure has been invested in Iraq for us to simply throw up our hands and say, “Well, it’s up to the Iraqis now. Good luck, we’re outta here!” Iraq can and should be a major ally of ours in the most crucial spot in the Middle East. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that we have a continuing military presence there as well as increasing diplomatic and economic ties. We still have troops in Germany and Japan, for crying out loud. How much more important is it to have troops or at least air bases in easy reach of Iran and the Persian Gulf — not to mention Syria and Israel?)
If the post by John Hinderaker is a real indication of the trends of conservative thinking (or the thinking of the public in general) then the U.S. is in big trouble in the world.
Can we save a few bucks from the budget by calling it quits in Afghanistan? Sure, but even Hinderaker admits that the cost is comparatively small change.
Let me emphasize here that I do not advocate an unlimited and unconditional engagement in Afghanistan. I have said before that if the U.S. is not serious about winning there, if we are simply using the precious lives of our combat forces as a political game or in some half-hearted program to get re-elected, then those forces should come home. But the rational response to bad policy and poor management is not to shut everything down and hide under the bed at home, it is to recognize the problems and do something about it: throw out the policy-makers and bad managers and implement a better approach.
It saddens me to think that John Hinderaker has gotten so discouraged with our Afghan policy that he would rather hide under the bed than use his considerable intellect to advocate for a better way.