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A faulty argument for staying on in Afghanistan

Marc Thiessen of the Washington Post's op-ed page is promising doom when US troops pull out of Afghanistan. There is no reason to believe he's close to correct.

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Disaster Two: Terrorists more likely to get nukes!

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Thiessen argues that if there is a US "retreat" from Afghanistan – something he never defines – one of two outcomes will occur in Pakistan. The "worst-case scenario," he says, would see Al Qaeda and the Taliban "topple the government and take control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal." The best-case scenario? "Those within the Pakistani government who supported cooperating with the United States will be weakened, while those who have long argued for supporting the Islamists and terrorists against the United States will be strengthened. Either way, Pakistan becomes a facilitator of terror."

This is Kony12 levels of oversimplification and silliness. The Pakistani military are not exactly interested in losing control of the country to either foreign or home grown jihadis. And while much of Pakistan is a mess, including those border areas that the drones keep peppering with missiles, there is quite simply no prospect of a "terrorist" takeover of Pakistan any time soon. (For a fuller argument why, read this Monitor cover story from 2009).

And the US military presence in Afghanistan is, if anything, a complicating factor in Pakistan's own internal struggles, not something holding back an imagined barbarian horde. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan continue to largely focus on seeking a client state to act as a bulwark against its old enemy, India, and will probably continue to use terror tactics via proxy groups from time to time, as it has down the decades including the past one of heavy US presence in Afghanistan.

The US continues to seek close military ties with Pakistan by giving them lots of money, even though there are strong hints the country was deliberately harboring Osama bin Laden until his death at the hands of US forces last year. There are plenty of risks in Pakistan, and the country – like most – has this pesky habit of pursuing what it views as its own national interests. But an open-ended US military occupation of Afghanistan is neither here nor there when it comes to the big challenges across the border.

Disaster Three: Al Qaeda will blossom again in Afghanistan.

Thiessen predicts if the US "retreats" than the Taliban will be strengthened. This much of Thiessen's argument is possible. Support for the group remains strong in much of the country, and the risks of an ethnically-based civil war like the war one that took place after the Soviets withdrew is present.

Given the nature of Afghanistan and its people, it's hard to imagine a time when there won't be groups like the Taliban, or to imagine how the cultural facts that drive the phenomenon will be changed by an extended US military presence. But he goes on to assert "they will not hesitate to allow al-Qaeda to return to its old Afghan sanctuary."


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