Get Out of Afghanistan Now
Source Charles Brown
Date 09/10/17/11:22

Get Out of Afghanistan Now
By G. Pascal Zachary, In These Times

FOR ALL THE talk of polarization and partisanship in U.S. politics,
what's remarkable is the extent to which President Obama has continued
policies and practices of his predecessor, George Bush, in domestic
economics and military affairs.

Economically, Obama has continued the bailout of Wall Street,
maintained Bush-era tax cuts, pursued "stimulus" through large deficit
spending and re-appointed Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman
who was a Bush favorite.

In defense, Obama has broken with Bush on a few critical matters,
notably by canceling expensive weapons systems and dropping (in
September) an aggressive plan to impose a "missile shield" in Eastern
Europe that Russia intensely opposed. Yet Obama has carried over
Bush's secretary of defense, Robert Gates; essentially stuck with Bush
timetables on Iraq; and maintained historically record levels of
Pentagon spending. The president has continued the war in Afghanistan,
raising the number of American combat troops. In a speech on August
17, Obama even tried to construct a moral basis for the war, described
it as "not a war of choice," but "a war of necessity." And as a
necessary war, "a war worth fighting," Obama has declared that only
through the democratization of Afghanistan can the terrorist threat to
the United States--in the form of al Qaeda--be eliminated from the

Further escalation of the war in Afghanistan is no sure thing,
however. Having voiced support for increasing combat troops earlier in
his presidency, in September Obama seemed torn between three
possibilities: escalation, muddling through with the current military
footprint or shifting to a greatly "limited" combat mission that would
concentrate on countering terrorists targeting the United States,
rather than fighting the insurgent Taliban.

Obama's decision is complicated by his earlier decision to ask his top
Afghan military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to make the case
for escalation. McChrystal is reportedly prepared to ask for an
additional 40,000 U.S. troops--beyond the 68,000 American soldiers
already approved to fight in Afghanistan.

While the question of whether or not the United States sends more
troops to Afghanistan defines the current debate over the war,
respected Democratic voices, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.),
chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Vice President Joseph
Biden, are quietly stumping for a third way: limited war in Afghan,
which would concentrate on countering terrorists and depend on a
relatively small number of conventional combat troops. The "limited"
advocates, who Obama seemingly ignored until recently, are offering
the president a stark choice between escalating--and creating a new
Vietnam-style quagmire--and a sharp reduction of ground troops, which
would likely reduce both American deaths and the cost of the war.
Supporters of this approach include conservative columnist George
Will, who in a September column nicely summarized the "limited" war
approach. "Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a
comprehensively revised policy," Will wrote. "America should do only
what 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."

A third way
That escalation in Afghanistan is no longer viewed as inevitable is
welcome. Yet missing from the debate is any serious consideration of
complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. No single voice
in the foreign policy establishment supports the speedy exit of combat
forces, though even McChrystal concedes that the United States might
soon experience involuntary withdrawal--in total defeat. "Failure to
gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term
(next 12 months)--while Afghan security capacity matures--risks an
outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," he
wrote in his confidential assessment of the war, leaked to the
Washington Post.

To be sure, the United States has already lost the war in meaningful
ways. The month of October marks eight years of U.S. combat in
Afghanistan. More than 800 American soldiers have died--and alarmingly
more than one quarter of that total died in the past three months
alone. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent since the war
began. The Afghan government this summer presided over a fraudulent
national election. Illegal opium production has exploded since 2001;
for 2008, the United Nations valued Afghan drug exports at $3 billion.
Polls show less than 40 percent of Americans favor the war in
Afghanistan, the lowest level of support since the start of the war.

Calling for complete withdrawal, phased or immediate, remains a lonely
position, endorsed by such independent foreign policy experts as
Andrew J. Bacevich, of Boston University, and Robert Naiman,
coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, an activist group. Democratic
Party leaders, while fretting over parallels between an Afghan
quagmire and the Vietnam War that doomed Lyndon Johnson's presidency
in the '60s, are objecting to escalation. Sen. Carl Levin's (D-Mich.)
opposition to sending more troops, while trying to put limits on U.S.
costs in the war, still holds fast to the notion that Afghan
institutions, including the army, can be sufficiently strengthened to
hold off the Taliban. Even many progressive advocacy groups, such as
MoveOn, haven't made rapid withdrawal form Afghanistan a high
priority, perhaps fearing that by breaking with the president on war,
they will weaken his ability to push through progressive domestic
legislation like healthcare reform. But Code Pink, an influential
peace group, has been calling on the president to "focus on
negotiations and bringing our troops home."

Getting the mission right
Yet the case for withdrawing from Afghanistan makes tactical,
strategic and moral sense, chiefly because legitimate U.S. security
needs can be achieved more effectively through other means. As
Bacevich has written, "In Afghanistan today, the United States and its
allies are using the wrong means to vigorously pursue the wrong

If there is a "right" mission in Afghanistan, it can only be to deny
al-Qaeda and its friends the opportunity to attack Americans at home
and abroad. After eight years in Afghanistan, U.S. troops (aided by
much smaller forces from Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy and other
"allied" countries) haven't accomplished this. Yet targeted attacks by
U.S. and allied forces are killing terrorists, highlighting an
alternative to ground troops and an Afghan quagmire.

In September, U.S. military forces in Somalia killed Saleh Nabhan, the
man believed to be responsible for attacks on the U.S. Embassy in
Kenya and Tanzania. Predator drones, "robot" aircraft controlled from
a distance by U.S. technicians, have killed al-Qaeda leaders in

The use of assassination squads and remote-controlled killer planes
present their own practical and moral problems. The wrong people can
be killed, for instance. And such attacks require detailed knowledge
of the movements of the targets. Some of the declared "enemies,"
meanwhile, such as Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban government
shattered by U.S. air strikes beginning on Oct. 7, 2001, might be
worth negotiating with instead of killing. Omar remains head of the
insurgency, a popular hero and important to any negotiated settlement
in Afghanistan. Withdrawal of U.S. troops would be linked to progress
in peace negotiation--and an acceptance that the Taliban, in some
form, will play some role, if not a decisive role, in a new Afghan

An end to war in Afghanistan--and increased stability as a consequence
of peaceful co-existence with the Taliban--would benefit Pakistan,
where Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants are believed to be living in
a remote city. Secular political forces in Pakistan, which possesses
nuclear weapons, are battling to keep the country out of the hands of
religious fundamentalists who already exert profound influence.
Anti-American feeling is extraordinarily high in Pakistan; even
secular elites blame Americans for inflaming and exaggerating their
domestic problems. The U.S. government, which is currently debating
how much to increase financial assistance to Pakistan, would provide
more effective help without troops in Afghanistan.

A comprehensive strategy
Defenders of escalation say that Afghanistan needs to be reformed and
that the aim of U.S. intervention is to create a democratic society,
where Afghanis are safe and free. The premise of a democratic
Afghanistan informs McChrystal's view of war aims; the commander's
edifice of escalation depends, he writes (weirdly echoing Hegel), on
identifying "the objective will of the [Afghan] people." In March,
Obama gave powerful expression to this position when he announced his
"comprehensive" strategy for Afghanistan. While his highest goal was
to stop the use of the country as a terrorist staging ground, his next
two were classic nation-building goals: to promote a more capable,
accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan and a national
army that can ultimately take over "counter-insurgency" efforts from

In the arena of democratization, the American effort was marred by
last month's flawed elections, which saw President Hamid Karzai steal
enough votes to claim victory (there's a recount now underway). The
election fiasco pushed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an
influential Democrat, to predict Afghanistan "will remain [a] tribal
entity." Such a place would require a strong U.S. military presence to
hold together and (perhaps) the emergence of a homegrown dictator
ruling the country with a "strong hand."

Yet the very presence of American troops inflames ethnic differences.

Afghans view Americans as invaders and occupiers, and their very
presence galvanizes opponents, creating more resistance. As Afghan
army spokesman Zahir Azimi has said, "Where [American] forces are
fighting, people think it is incumbent on them to resist the occupiers
and infidels." The self-perpetuating nature of the conflict explains
the profound pessimism expressed by some with deep experience in the
region. British Gen. David Richards, who served in Afghanistan, said
in August that stabilizing the country could take 40 years. While such
predictions are dismissed as hysterical, they are simply the logical
extension of Levin's insistence that the United States "increase and
accelerate our efforts to support the Afghan security forces in their
efforts to become self-sufficient in delivering security to their
nation." These efforts at self-reliance inevitably involve a
significant American presence on the ground, which in turn fuels the
very cycle that Levin insists he wants to avoid: a costly quagmire.

The alternative to a McChrystal escalation or a Levin quagmire
requires no leap into the unknown but rather recognition of limits of
American power and the legacy of Afghan history. The script for
withdrawal is essentially already written--in Iraq, of all places. For
the sake of temporary peace, Iraq has essentially been partitioned
into three "sub-countries," two of which are essentially ethnic
enclaves. The same could be done in Afghanistan--though the number of
sub-divisions could be larger, and acceptance of Taliban rule over
some of them would be required. In this scenario, a phased pullout of
U.S. forces could accompany the negotiated "government of national
unity," which--like in Iraq--would preserve the "notional" nation of
Afghanistan while effectively deconstructing the territory into more
manageable pieces.

The United States once blithely dealt with the Taliban (Dick Cheney,
after all, famously met with the Taliban prior to bin Laden's
attacks). While retaining the right to attack al Qaeda on Afghan soil,
the Obama administration could tolerate Taliban rule if the result of
a stable Afghanistan was to free more resources and attention to
Pakistan's urgent security issues. The embrace of realism could well
co-evolve with the re-emergence of a moral center to American foreign

Under this scenario, withdrawal of American troops would not mean the
end of military actions on Afghan soil. As advocates of "limited" war
argue, attacks could still be made from Predator drones based
elsewhere. But air strikes and attacks by U.S. "special forces" on
Afghan soil risk undermining any government of national unity and the
pretense that the United States has halted its war on the Taliban.

For President Obama, the stakes are high. His young presidency is on
the line. Perhaps because his secretary of defense, Gates, is a
Republican, Obama has personalized the decision on Afghan strategy to
a dangerous degree. Afghanistan is now Obama's war. By deciding to
reduce, if not altogether remove, U.S. combat troops from the country,
the president will take a step towards the moral high ground that he
so often desperately seeks to inhabit.

Morality must return to the center of America's relations with the
world. Afghanistan could become, as Obama likes to say, "a teaching
moment," for this president and his wider constituency, the citizens
of the planet. The Bush presidency damaged both the image of the
United States as a role model for promoters of democratization around
the world, and further entrenched a darker counter-view of America as
a reactionary force in world affairs. The Obama presidency creates an
opening to restore the brighter side. In continuing the war in
Afghanistan, Obama risks destroying his chances to redeem the United
States in the eyes of the world. By ending the Afghan war, quickly and
decisively, the president will match his rhetoric of hope with
reality. He will also save U.S. lives and create new openings for
negotiation, diplomacy and regional solutions to problems in distant

G. Pascal Zachary, a member of the In These Times Board of Editors, is
the author of the memoir Married to Africa and The Diversity
Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. He teaches
journalism at Stanford University and is a fellow at the German
Marshall Fund.

2009 In These Times

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho