Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

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.

Erik De Castro/REUTERS
A U.S. Army soldier from the Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 377 Field Artillery Regiment looks as a comrade stretches his arms while waiting for an order to fire a 155MM Howitzer artillery at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan March 20.

The murder of 16 Afghans last week, allegedly by a US soldier who wandered off his base in Afghanistan, has renewed a basic question: Why are 90,000 US troops still in Afghanistan?

Washington Post op-ed writer Marc Thiessen took a stab yesterday at justifying a longer stay in Central Asia, without once mentioning the costs in lives and cash, nor referencing anyone with actual regional expertise. While his piece yesterday warns of danger ahead for the US in Afghanistan, the real danger lies in anyone in a position of power taking such sentiment seriously. His piece lays out "Five disasters we'll face if US retreats from Afghanistan."

Let's take them apart one at a time:

Disaster One: No more drone attacks in Pakistan.

Mr. Thiessen writes, "If we want to continue the drone war against al-Qaeda, we must have a U.S. military presence not just in Afghanistan but in the Pashtun heartland – and we can’t have that presence if the Pashtun heartland is on fire."

There's a whole range of options to maintaining a "presence" in Afghanistan that would allow for intelligence sharing and Afghan assistance in going after the remnants of Al Qaeda, which is now a shadow of its former self. President Hamid Karzai has been eager to stop aggressive US military raids – which inflame Pashtun opposition to his government and the US-led occupation – to allow more space for a negotiated end to the war with the Taliban.

Thiessen appears to be completely unaware of the fact that the Karzai regime views the sorts of military tactics he is calling for as counterproductive.

As for what's left of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Thiessen's prediction that "Al Qaeda would be free to reconstitute" itself there ignores ongoing, albiet imperfect, joint efforts with Pakistan, and the near complete demise of Al Qaeda's traditional network in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Col. (Ret.) Pat Lang; who fought with native insurgents as a Green Beret in the Vietnam War; who founded the Arabic and Middle East studies programs at West Point; and was in charge of the Middle East, South Asia, and Terrorism at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1990s, says the approach that men like Thiessen want makes focusing on counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan harder, not easier. "Karzai... seeks a middle way that will allow the US to continue CT (counterterrorism) operations in that country. Perhaps that is still possible. Perhaps. We have done so much damage to that possibility that I doubt it can still be done."

Disaster Two: Terrorists more likely to get nukes!

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."

Not hesitate? No. There will be plenty of hesitation and consideration of costs and benefits. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were never synonyms. Broadly speaking, there have been tensions between the internationalist Al Qaeda and the locally-focused Afghans going all the way back to Osama bin Laden's return to Afghanistan in 1996.

Thiessen also conveniently ignores 10 years of woe for the Taliban – with thousands of its members killed, its loss of control of the country – as a consequence of its relationship with bin Ladens' internationalist jihadis. Many people who professionally study the region believe the Taliban have no appetite for that kind of trouble again, particularly if negotiated alternatives can be found. A good overview of the history of Al Qaeda's relationship with the Taliban and the risks and opportunities ahead is here.

Disaster Four: Another 9/11

Yup, so predicts Thiessen.

Why? Because if US forces leave Afghanistan "instead of being seen as a failed leader hunted down by American forces, bin Laden will be viewed as a martyred prophet who did not live to see his vision fulfilled." Thiessen's view of the world puts the US in an awkward position.

Since bin Laden once predicted the US would eventually depart Afghanistan, Thiessen argues that when the US departs, it will prove bin Laden right. But the logical consequence of Thiessen's reasoning is that the US can therefore never leave Afghanistan.

Disaster Five: Iran would be more likely to get nukes.

Thiessen says Iran would be happy to see the US depart Afghanistan, and in this he's probably right. Iran hasn't much liked having all of those powerful war planes on its doorstep (it didn't like them when they were in Iraq, either). Who would?

But he goes on to write: "If the United States is seen as running from the fifth-poorest country in the world, it will send a signal of weakness that will undermine our ability to isolate Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon."

There is no reason to believe this assertion is accurate.

The US has just spent the better part of a decade fighting two wars at enormous costs to itself. Whatever else that is, it's not the sign of a shrinking violet.

Sanctions targeting the heart of Iran's financial system have been imposed under US leadership, with buy-in from Europe and the major countries of the Gulf. President Obama has been doing plenty of saber rattling, with warnings of a US attack on Iran if it's deemed to be on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran's nuclear program is going to be a major policy challenge for the US for years to come. But Afghanistan is largely a side-show to the diplomatic and military posturing taking place. 

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