The Afghan Drawdown Is Long, Long Overdue

The Afghan Drawdown Is Long, Long Overdue

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President Obama is now doing something politically difficult — drawing down our troops from Afghanistan. However difficult it will be for the president to weather his Washington critics, it is the right decision politically and militarily.

The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly a decade. It is the longest military conflict in our history, and also the most futile and ineffective. Once Al-Qaeda had been ousted from power and had retreated to Pakistan, there was no longer a reason for an American presence there. When the United States finally killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the lack of need for a continued American military presence became definitive. Our continued presence is overkill; we have long since won our battles there. We know that our erstwhile enemy consists of only a few hundred weakened and leaderless adherents in the region.

The costs of maintaining the American military in Afghanistan are astronomical — two billion dollars a week by some estimates. There would be some justification for this expense if the military were actually accomplishing something of value for the United States or even for the Afghan people, but neither is the case.

Let us be clear. The United States is in a conflict of its own making. It set up this war more than 30 years ago in its support of “freedom fighters” working to oust the Soviet Union from Afghan soil. There was nothing wrong with that support at the time; however the United States lost interest in the Afghans and their external voluntary zealot-supporters from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Morocco the minute the Soviets had withdrawn. These external fighters, who could not return home since they frightened their own governments, were dumped into Pakistan with the United States’ blessing, only to fester in their extreme views, forming the core of Al-Qaeda.

The Taliban ex-Afghan fighters — equally reactionary to Al-Qaeda in their religious philosophy — were first supported by the United States, since they hoped that they would support building a pipeline for Caspian petroleum across Afghan territory. When they were seen to protect Al-Qaeda, they became the U.S. target.

The United States' answer to Taliban rule was to install a corrupt dictator, Hamid Karzai, as president of the nation. Karzai, who had long connections with Washington and U.S. financial interests, stole billions of U.S. dollars and never did anything to counter religious extremism in his country. He certainly never lifted a finger to aid in the containment of Al-Qaeda.

American troops twiddled their thumbs in Afghanistan, half-building useless, flimsy public works that now largely stand empty. They also wasted time trying to eradicate the only cash crop that gave Afghan farmers any income at all — opium poppies — and engaging in random skirmishes with Taliban guerrillas. There was never any concrete goal to the military presence beyond containment of Al-Qaeda. Variously the United States has claimed that it was trying to “stabilize” Afghanistan, to bring democratic government to the nation, to assure human rights, and a hundred other ancillary tasks that were utterly impractical and unsuccessful.

In truth, American military and political leaders never understood Afghan society at all. They called local leaders “warlords” and tried to destroy their power base, when in fact these individuals had formed the core of the traditional political system in the country and were forces for stability. They never appreciated the extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity of the nation, which made every region virtually a nation within a nation, requiring tailor-made strategies for each, rather than one-size-fits-all broad-brush measures. They failed to understand the system of economic and political patronage that insured some modicum of financial security for peasants. They also were totally puzzled by the religious landscape of the country — sometimes over-the-top in its religious stringency, at other times lax and even agnostic.

The one truly virtuous ideal upheld by Americans was the protection of women and women’s rights. But here too the United States could only pay lip service to this important social dynamic. It couldn’t prevent laws curtailing women’s rights from being passed, nor could it develop a strategy for persuading Afghan leaders to intervene in the most egregious local abuses.

One thing is clear though: The U.S. presence has been an astonishing windfall for U.S. contractors and external advisors who reaped billions of their own with little or no supervision at U.S. taxpayer expense. These war profiteers are first and foremost lobbying to keep the military in place.

What is also clear is that the Afghan people no longer want the United States in their country — just as they have never wanted any foreign presence on their soil. At best, the United States has relieved the Afghan military from its own defense responsibilities. It has enriched its generals and other military personnel, but in no way has it been effective in helping to build an Afghan military.

Critics will say that President Obama has simply given up. But our military leaders gave up long before the president. Virtually everyone in command in Afghanistan, and certainly the preponderance of the rank-and-file military, see absolutely no purpose in maintaining a U.S. presence there any longer. It is time for them to come home and give Afghanistan what it really wants — self determination and a nation free of foreign occupation for the first time in decades.

The traditional leadership systems of Afghanistan should be given time to work and establish political stability once more. This will not be quick or easy. Here, the United States or the United Nations could play a limited role in preventing external influence and curtailing the civil conflict, which will likely ensue. However, the Afghans want to make their own way. It is time to let them.