It's Time to Leave Afghanistan—Or Is It?

It's Time to Leave Afghanistan—Or Is It?

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Editor’s Note: Veteran global correspondent Frank Viviano says a U.S. and European pull out from Afghanistan could trigger new killing fields—and a global catastrophe.





BARGA, Italy--My head tells me it’s time to leave. But my heart, for reasons grounded in personal experience, is profoundly wary.

Like almost everyone who has watched, in growing dismay, as the war in Afghanistan has dragged mercilessly on, I agree with President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. But I have doubts that few of my friends, on either side of the Atlantic, seem to share.

Here in Europe, support for foreign engagement in Afghanistan approached 70 percent in 2008. It has now all but collapsed. In the most recent comprehensive polls, nearly 80 percent of Italians said they want their forces brought home by the end of 2011, echoing 79 percent of Germans, 73 percent of the British and 70 percent of the French. After the United States, their countries have the four largest contingents in deployment, totaling more than 20,000 men and women.

We entered Afghanistan a decade ago with mixed motives, dominated initially by a desire for revenge on the planners of the September 11 terrorist attacks. As time went on, however, the focus shifted to Afghanistan itself – to revulsion at what the Taliban had done to the country and its people, and to the awful damage wrought by a quarter century of murderous conflict before the United States assault opened on October 7, 2001.

I covered the American war from its very first day, while reporting in the Middle East and Central Asia on the Islamic world’s reaction to September 11. I’ve been writing about it periodically ever since.

“It is the longest military conflict in our history, and also the most futile and ineffective,” notes my eminent colleague William O. Beeman, a leading expert on the region.

Roughly a third of the present 100,000 Americans in Afghanistan will be pulled out by next summer, and the remainder by 2014. I know that the war’s cost, to our overstretched military and bruised economy, is clearly not justified by its meager results.

Shadows of Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia

Yet, despite myself, the image that comes to mind when I envision the effect of withdrawal is set in a Bosnian forest, rather than Kabul.

On a humid July afternoon in 1995, I was a few miles west of Srebrenica when thousands of women and children came fleeing through the trees, crazed with grief. Behind them, an estimated 8,000 of their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers had been executed by Serbian infantrymen and dumped into open trenches.

The outside world had been nominally present in Bosnia since 1992, in the form of a United Nations Protection Force – 40,000-strong -- that offered neither real protection nor convincing force. Its efforts were paralyzed by a United Nations Security Council “mandate” so ambivalent that it authorized virtually nothing. UN tanks and troops stood silently by as years of atrocities unfolded, climaxing at Srebrenica.

What I saw and heard that summer day, under drenching rain at a makeshift refugee camp, will remain carved in my memory until the end of my life.

Military intervention can have terrible consequences. But all too often, so do diplomatic restraint, botched implementation, hasty withdrawal -- and outright moral evasion.

This is unquestionably the meaning of Rwanda, where the developed world looked the other way as more than 800,000 people were slaughtered, and of the Cambodian killing fields, where 1.7 million perished. It might also have been the final meaning of Bosnia, had Bill Clinton not overcome his doubts and approved U.S. bombing sorties in 1995, ending the war within months.

Yes, we need to draw down our effort in Afghanistan, which shows no sign of ending in years, much less months. But we must be prepared for a grisly aftermath.

Taliban’s Barbarism

The Taliban were deeply feared in Afghanistan long before foreign intervention began, to what was then general relief. Their worldview is characterized by an utter contempt for any beliefs except their own -- the destruction in 2001 of the revered, 1,600-year-old statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan speaks for itself. They treat women as abject chattels, with less value than a pack animal, and have blinded young girls who commit the sin of attending school.

Less than a year ago, on August 6, Taliban “warriors” shot or beheaded 10 foreign doctors, nurses and medical technicians in a valley north of Kabul.

This has nothing to do with Islam or a contest between Asian traditional values and western secularism. At issue in Taliban rule is the triumph of sheer, undisguised barbarism.

There is strong reason to expect a Taliban return to power in the vacuum left by departed international forces, and with it a horrifying settling of accounts. Put bluntly, we are likely to witness, from a safe distance, a bloodbath of the innocent.

The abrupt statistical curve of emigration from Afghanistan graphically measures public horror of the Taliban and relief at their overthrow. The human tide rose inexorably between their seizure of power in 1996 and the closing months of 2001. By the opening of the American war, there were 7.4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran alone. Since 2002, more than 5 million Afghani refugees have repatriated.

To be sure, NATO and Washington have made unforgivable mistakes. In Hamid Karzai, we backed a petty dictator, who has proven both corrupt and incompetent.

Beeman emphasizes that the war has been “an astonishing windfall for U.S. contractors and external advisors, who reaped billions of their own with little or no supervision.”

Air attacks by unmanned drones, controlled electronically from as far away as Florida, have been responsible for hundreds of “accidental” civilian deaths. Approximately 10,000 Afghans have been killed, by both sides, in the current 10-year-old war.

Yet by comparison, an estimated 1.3 million Afghans died during the 1979-1989 Soviet invasion, and 400,000 in the 12-year Taliban civil war that followed. Many Afghans perceive the period of international occupation as the most secure in their devastating recent history.

Makings of a Global Catastrophe

A Taliban-run or anarchic Afghanistan will almost certainly recover its attraction as a sanctuary, training ground and rear base for militant extremists. Along with the danger of massive refugee waves, this prospect explains why Kabul’s neighbors –including Iran and China – tacitly backed international intervention at its onset.

Afghanistan is the linchpin of an immensely troubled neighborhood, with violent uprisings underway in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China’s Xinjiang Province; severe political turmoil in Iran; and perilous instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The clouds building on the horizon are not simply a nightmare for Afghans. They have the makings of global catastrophe.

At its peak, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan counted soldiers and civilian advisors from an unprecedented 42 nations. That remarkable alliance, the largest since World War II, stands on the verge of total dismantling.

The danger is that feverish withdrawal will unravel the logic of all foreign intervention, paving the way for countless Bosnias, Rwandas and Cambodias in the future.

At least, the reasoning goes, Afghans will be spared the “collateral” casualties of foreign military engagement in their affairs.

Think again. The foreign armies will be gone. But as Washington has openly announced, they will be replaced by a vastly increased dependence on drone aircraft and other instruments of faceless, electronic war.

The killing will continue.