Af-Pak: To Leave, Or Not To Leave

Do we define national security by absolute need and best practice, or do we define it as a function of political context? Is the conflict in Afghanistan (and the sticky situation in Pakistan) a matter of national security, or is it a war of choice based on stubborn ideals and historical ignorance? As President Obama comes to the end of an abbreviated review of the 18 months since the Afghan Surge, these should be questions at the top of his mind.

For a nation that spent two decades avoiding conflicts under the aegis of “It could be another Viet Nam”, with Afghanistan the United States was quick to jump feet first into “another Viet Nam”. The conflict is expensive, bloody, logistically difficult, reliant on a corrupt local government, unpopular with the locals, and geopolitically risky. The delicate balance crafted by David Petraeus in Afghanistan has not (and cannot) limit the collateral damage done in Pakistan. The wars we might win or avoid via a succesful action in Afghanistan, pale in comparison to the wars we can unintentionally start involving Pakistan. Foreign policy is a high wire act at the best of times; the addition of military action, however, makes it a one-legged high wire act.

In the aftermath of moderate success on the ground in Afghanistan, in the afterglow of Geronimo-E KIA, in the context of budget balancing that already includes ending heating oil subsidies here at home, what should be our next course of action?

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?-William Shakespeare

We know that President Obama will withdraw troops from that region this year; we know that he will pull out all of the combat troops by 2014. On the subject of troop deployments, both build-up and draw-down, the President has been rigorous in adhering to deadlines. It is the rate of withdrawal which we must now decide; to know how many, how fast, is to have a good understanding of why we stay, and what is yet to accomplish.

To the left of the President; the anti-war movement demands a complete and immediate withdrawal. To his right, Mr. Obama faces Congressional Republicans willing to concede some domestic points in order to keep the war going. The military-industrial lobby represents a powerful force affecting members of Congress from both parties. The alpha personalities of the Pentagon want to continue chasing the dream of “absolute victory”; the more sober planners want to ensure that gains traded for the blood of servicemen are not easily conceded.

Gains have indeed been made, by both the intelligence and drone driven campaign favored by Vice President Biden, and the surge strategy favored by outgoing Secretary Gates. Al-Qaeda has been degraded in that part of the world:

Of 30 prominent members of the terrorist organization in the region identified by intelligence agencies as targets, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half, they said, reducing the threat they pose.-Landler and Cooper

But real questions remain as to the mindset of military planners; what would we have done had George W. Bush not had the uncharacteristic burst of sense that led to his appointment of Robert Gates? Mr. Gates’ assessment of the dominant feelings among our community of hawks remains relevant to this day:

“When I took this job, the United States was fighting two very difficult, very costly wars,” Mr. Gates said. “And it has seemed to me: Let’s get this business wrapped up before we go looking for more opportunities.”

The mindset we must get past is the notion that troops on the ground are the only good avenue to national security. The complete picture must be assessed in making the decision to stay or go. The brisk withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan can yield budget relief yes, but it can also provide the resource needed to take up an ever more brisk action against terrorism on other fronts. Everything from espionage and special operations, to humanitarian relief and economic development can serve the goal of fighting terror. The sooner that reality is embraced, the sooner our Af-Pak strategy can mature.

Troops should not be withdrawn at a pace that compromises the gains made in Afghanistan’s south; packets of withdrawals, followed by periods of observation, should serve to ensure gains are not lost. The President should withdraw the first 10,000 troops this summer, with 10,000 more scheduled to leave later in the fall after another stability review. The process can be repeated again, given adequate stability and improvements in Afghan forces, until all 100,000 are home. Such a staged withdrawal, under the best cast scenario, could see all of our troops home from the region by Christmas of 2013.

The United States must figure out its place in 21st Century diplomacy. The notion is easier written than done; isolationism (as expressed by our desire to bring ‘em home, and our general dislike of foreign aid) seems to be the popular sentiment of the day, but Americans still care about our influence in the world at large. Too often, however, we think only of the positives our involvement brings to the table; negative consequences that aren’t acknowledged are never properly considered. Afghanistan and Pakistan are geopolitical linchpins; a nascent Russia, thriving China, and booming India sit to their east. The region also covers the southern approach to the Persian Gulf. An explosion of rivalry and regional ambition, combined with the nuclear arsenals of the major players, is decidedly not in the interests of the United States.

How we choose to end our direct involvement will play a major role in the future of this region. But end it we must; we are gifted with the most professional and capable military in the world, but they are only human. Stray bullets and collateral damage are part and parcel of military action, but are primal and personal to the families who suffer the wounds. The sooner we can leave the region, without leaving friends unprepared for our departure, the better for us all.

The Rational Middle is listening…

2 thoughts on “Af-Pak: To Leave, Or Not To Leave

  1. Melody; as always, I appreciate your comments.

    “How do we leave Af-Pak without knowing how their desires for conquest and their territorial disputes will be settled. The area is a hotbed of conflicts, personalities, subterfuges, and power struggles.”

    You might be specific on who the “they” is in your comments; do you imagine that Muslims, in general, are ruled by a desire for conquest? Or does your comment speculate on the Taliban specifically…the two propositions are very different indeed.

    I could write reams comparing religious fundamentalists, and their history of aggression, across many faiths and many centuries (see; The Crusades, The Irish Troubles, The Spanish “Conversion” of the Americas, American Evangelicals who pray for a literal Armageddon). But perhaps I will stick with pointing out that the average family living in Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, or Indonesia, want the same things as average families do everywhere.

    Do you really imagine that news reports (from the same media you aren’t likely to immediately trust here) paint an accurate picture of life elsewhere? Angry Muslims in Gaza, and suicide bombers in Baghdad, both make better copy than “Abdul and Fatima took their kids to the gardens…” Does “The Real World” and press coverage of the Tea Party protests accurately represent Americans? I don’t care for political correctness, but foreign policy by limited stereotype is not obviously good for our nation.

    As to the notion of spreading a faith to pave the way for a deity’s return, Christians by the millions move across our globe daily, trying to convert others that the Kingdom of God be prepared for His return. The notion of spreading a faith does not, by itself, describe any desire for violent conquest. When someone can show me, through the use of empirical data, that Muslims are more violent than Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Jews, then I will accept the argument.

    Obnoxious fundamentalism has driven the egos and warlike nature of humans since the dawn of time, and large standing armies have never been particularly effective at subduing those feelings. It is a point of historical fact that large standing armies, deployed in regions that do not share the faith of the occupiers, serve only to exacerbate those feelings.

    Outside of the mostly subjective discussion on the relative merits of religious conversion, Melody, one segment of your comment requires a mild rebuke based on objective standards.

    “I’m not sure that if we leave that China, Russia and India will stay out of the area or surge ahead in the ensuing vacuum, which is not a very inviting idea.”

    Russia has already been “in that area”; it is not immediately obvious that anyone in Afghanistan would ever roll out the welcome mat for anyone from that nation, unless that mat be made of explosives. India has no interest in Afghanistan; the Kashmir region represents the closest thing to a territorial desire that nation covets, and Pakistan is who she wrestles with in that regard. It is of importance that the United States, and the United Nations, continue to help Pakistan and India steer clear of open conflict, but the Hindu state is not a serious threat in Afghanistan (Kashmir, in fact, represents the greater area of concern regarding China, India, and Pakistan). China is interested in China (and a part of the Kashmir); Tibet and Taiwan are quite enough for them to worry about. For the rest of the East, China is principally concerned with finding buyers for its armaments… armaments and buyers that do not, as a rule, have the capacity to threaten China (which means that can’t directly threaten the U.S. via some use in Afghanistan).

    The problem of vacuum in Afghanistan is limited to the Taliban (and possibly Iran), and it is to those ends that the President focuses his concern. I agree that it is a tricky situation indeed, but it is clear that we cannot make it a policy to hang around in Afghanistan indefinitely.

  2. Michael, with the warlike tendencies of most of the Middle East, I’m not sure what other options are available to deal with that mentality. How do we leave Af-Pak without knowing how their desires for conquest and their territorial disputes will be settled. The area is a hotbed of conflicts, personalities, subterfuges, and power struggles. I’m not sure that if we leave that China, Russia and India will stay out of the area or surge ahead in the ensuing vacuum, which is not a very inviting idea.

    I know something of the radical Islamic fundamentalist viewpoint and it is one of total world caliphate creation by force so that Allah can return to eternal rule. Along the way, they are determined to have their own personal desires wherever they can fit them in.

    This is a ticking time bomb and I don’t envy Pres. Obama’s decision making responsibility in this area. Let us pray that at least some people in the area desire peace, stability and common sense along with the willingness to live and let live. I’m just not optimistic.

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