Given declining poll numbers and rising casualty figures, it is no surprise that US chattering classes are starting to bail out on a war in Afghanistan that was launched with their enthusiastic support. From Senator Russ Feingold on the left to columnist George Will on the right, these born-again doves seem to be chastened by the fact that the Taliban simply won’t stop fighting. Rather than rise to the challenge, they propose that we stick to what Will says “can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters”.
Photograph: Lewis Whyld / AP
If only we could. No one wants to see troops risking injury and death in ground combat. It would be nice if it weren’t necessary. But it is. We tried the offshore strategy in the 1990s when Afghanistan became a stronghold of Al Qaeda. Even after 9/11 we still stuck to a minimalist approach. Recall the failure to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora because we wouldn’t commit enough troops. As recently as 2008, there were only two US brigade combat teams in the entire country (a brigade has roughly 4,000 soldiers), compared with 20 in Iraq at the height of the surge.
There are now five brigades engaged in combat in Afghanistan. For most of the Bush administration, we relied on unmanned Predator drones and special forces to keep the enemy at bay. Afghan security forces were too small and ineffective. Even today, there are only 173,000 Afghan soldiers and police compared with 600,000 in Iraq. The result: The Taliban, which had been routed in 2001, staged a resurgence.
However much advocates of downsizing might want to disguise the fact, there is no alternative to doing the kind of intensive counterinsurgency work on the ground that has paid off in numerous conflicts from Malaya to Iraq. If we don’t make a bigger commitment—one that will require raising our troop strength beyond the 68,000 to which the administration is already committed—we are likely to lose.
Losing wars is a bad thing. It is especially bad if you are a superpower that depends on an aura of invincibility to keep rogue elements at bay. That should go without saying, but those calling for a scuttle from Afghanistan seem to have forgotten this elementary lesson. They might cast their minds back to the 1970s when we were reeling from defeat in Vietnam and our enemies were on the march from Nicaragua to Iran. Or back to the 1990s when, following the US pullout from Lebanon and Somalia, Osama bin Laden labelled us a weak horse that could be attacked with impunity.
A US drawdown in Afghanistan would lead to defeat with consequences at least as serious. The Taliban would expand their control, probably seizing Kandahar, the principal city of the south. Then they would besiege Herat, Kabul and other urban centres. No doubt the central government could hold out for some time, and the Taliban would be unlikely to ever capture all of northern Afghanistan—territory they did not control even on 10 September 2001. But they could certainly impose their diktat over substantial territories where narco-traffickers and terrorists would have free run.
The impact on Pakistan—“a nation that actually matters”, in Will’s words—is particularly sobering. To the extent that we have been able to stage successful attacks on Al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, it is because we have secure bases in Afghanistan. To the extent that we have not been more successful in getting the government of Pakistan to eliminate the militants on its own, it is because we have not convinced all of the relevant decision makers (particularly in the military and intelligence services) that we will be in the region for the long term. Many Pakistanis still regard the US as a fickle superpower—here today, gone tomorrow. That impression took hold after we left Afghanistan and Pakistan in the lurch in the 1990s after having made a substantial commitment to fight Soviet invaders in the 1980s.
If there is any wavering in our commitment to Afghanistan, officials in Pakistan will take that as confirmation that their old strategy of cutting deals with Islamic militants is more necessary than ever. That means that the Taliban and related groups, which have been on the defensive lately following a Pakistani army offensive, will be more secure than ever in their sanctuaries. They will then use these bases not only to try to topple the governments in Kabul and Islamabad, but also to stage international acts of terrorism. It would be the biggest victory for the jihadists since the Red Army marched out of Afghanistan and the biggest defeat for the US since Vietnam.
Such an outcome is by no means inevitable. It is true that winning in Afghanistan—meaning creating sufficient stability for the democratically elected government to secure its own territory without a substantial foreign troop presence—will not be quick or easy. But nor will it be as difficult as in Iraq.
The security problems are largely confined to the Pashtun belt comprising roughly half the country’s population of 33 million. Although violence continues to rise, it is far below the levels seen in Iraq in 2006-2007. Even recently, when fighting has abated in Iraq, more civilians have been dying most months in Iraq than in Afghanistan.
Until now international forces and their Afghan partners have lacked the will and resources to implement a classic counter-insurgency plan designed to secure the populace. But that is precisely what General Stanley McChrystal will undertake—assuming he gets the resources he needs from Washington. To pull the plug on our operations now, when our troops are only beginning to fight in earnest, would be even more foolish than it would have been to short-circuit the surge in Iraq in 2007—as so many who are freely offering advice on Afghanistan today once advocated.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org