NATO summit: Why US, allies don't just call it quits in Afghanistan

Al Qaeda, oil, and Pakistan, a trifecta of troublesome issues, make the US withdrawal from Afghanistan far more complicated than it was in Iraq.

Abdul Khaleq/AP/File
A British military official with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force adjusts his helmet, as a NATO helicopter lands at the Provincial Reconstruction Team compound in Helmand Province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, in this Jan. 19 file photo.

Why can't the United States just make a clean break in Afghanistan, the way it did in Iraq?

That question may occur to many Americans upon learning that NATO countries are poised this month to lay out their post-2014 commitment to Afghanistan. After all, more than 6 in 10 disapprove of a US-Afghanistan pact to foot much of the bill for Afghan forces and to keep American troops there after 2014, according to a recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll.

The answer to the question can be distilled to three parts: Al Qaeda, oil, and Pakistan.

The US and NATO have been on the ground in Afghanistan for nearly 11 years, trying to build up Afghan security forces, among other things. But those forces still are not ready to shoulder security duties without outside help.

Thus, the primary goal that the US set for itself once it routed the Taliban from power remains to ensure, as President Obama has said, "that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists."

With the Al Qaeda leadership weakened but alive across the border in Pakistan, the US wants to maintain a robust counterterrorist capability in Afghanistan.

Another factor is oil – or rather, in Afghanistan's case, a lack of it. In Iraq, the US could exit abruptly because the central government had the revenues, thanks to plentiful oil deposits, to provide basic services and to field adequate Army and police forces to maintain security. But Afghanistan has no such revenues, although it is working to open up development of mineral deposits that may ultimately provide them.

That means the NATO-trained military and national police can't keep operating unless the US and other countries chip in for years to come.

Then there's Pakistan. As Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington says, "Essentially, the answer to the 'why not just leave' question is what it's always been: It's the unstable nuclear Pakistan with Islamic militants gaining strength that's right next door."

An American presence in Afghanistan reassures the Pakistani government that the US is not going to leave behind a void (one that might be filled by archenemy India?) that Pakistan has to worry about and plan for.

But also, many say, a US presence reduces the likelihood that Afghanistan will collapse into civil war, which could spill across the Pakistan border in the form of heightened instability.

That, says Dr. Biddle, is "a pretty scary prospect."

To these three reasons, some experts add another: the "paid too much to throw it all away" argument.

"In Iraq, we'd got to the point where if we left we were pretty sure all would not be lost, but nobody can say that about Afghanistan," says David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It's like when you've made all the sacrifices to make 99 payments on your car and you have one more to go," he adds. "Even if it's a rough moment for you and making that last payment is the last thing you want to do, you're going to do it, because if you do you're going to keep the car."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to NATO summit: Why US, allies don't just call it quits in Afghanistan
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today