It’s Time to leave Afghanistan

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Like the overwhelming majority of conservative commentators, David Brooks of The New York Times has come out in favor of sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. In The Afghan Imperative, Brooks recommends providing General Stanley McChrystal with the troops requested in his critical August 30th report. In The Tenacity Question, Brooks warns against what he perceives as a lack of “determination” on the part of the Obama Administration towards the war. Underlying both these pieces is a tacit, yet massive, assumption: that winning in Afghanistan is crucial to U.S. foreign policy.

Brooks writes about what he calls the “all in or all out” nature of our conflict against the Taliban. It is certainly difficult to imagine that our current strategy—maintaining low troop levels and focusing on convoy patrols and bombing raids rather than on population security—will suddenly, after eight years of mixed results, carry the day. To Brooks, we are left with two choices representing opposite extremes: either “surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building.” If the Obama Administration really is faced with such a choice, we need to ruminate about what brought us into Afghanistan in the first place, and what we can realistically expect by drawing out indefinitely an already long and costly war.

Brooks points out that disagreement on the question of how to proceed in Afghanistan stems from different perspectives of the situation on the ground. He writes: “When you interview people who know little about Afghanistan, they describe an anarchic place that is the graveyard of empires. When you interview people who live there or are experts, they think those stereotypes are rubbish. They usually take a hardened but guardedly optimistic view.”

This is an interesting attempt to hem into a corner potential criticism: as a non-expert, how can I question the logic of Afghan specialists like General McChrystal, who are far more qualified to assess the situation than myself? In reality, Brooks is disingenuous to suggest that the expert consensus is anything even remotely akin to “optimism”—if it were, we would not be having this debate in the first place. We should question the prescience of Brooks’ unnamed “experts,” whose optimism contrasts with recent, sobering reports from the country.

October 27th of this year marked a watershed event with regards to the American involvement in Afghanistan. On this date, The Times headlined a story revealing that Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, has received “regular payments” from the American CIA for the past eight years. The CIA’s sordid history alone should be enough to sound alarm bells. Ahmed Karzai is at best a corrupt politician and strongman, at worst the nation’s premier drug lord. His “services” to the CIA include organizing the Kandahar Strike Force, a paramilitary group ostensibly used to root out insurgents, but who have been accused of launching unauthorized attacks against members of the Afghan government. He is suspected of playing a major role in the election fraud campaign which delivered thousands of phony votes to his brother, President Hamid Karzai.

If the Karzais are serious about establishing a strong, healthy government in Afghanistan, then they shouldn’t need monetary inducements from the CIA to bribe them into supporting U.S. forces against the Taliban in the first place. The fact that the CIA feels obligated to provide direct financial assistance to such shady actors only illustrates our desperation.

As with Ngo Dinh Diem, “our man” in Vietnam in the 1960s, the CIA is devoting money and resources to propping up a corrupt and ineffective leadership in Afghanistan. Such tactics will only alienate the Afghan population at a time when we have identified winning over the population as critical to our success. In Vietnam, the Diem government quickly became accustomed to the American crutch. Slowly, we realized that his government could not stand without it. This is the archetypal recipe for a protracted and undesirable occupation with no foreseeable exit.

David Brooks totally misses the point when he sees the Obama administration as lacking in “resolve” or “determination” for not immediately meeting General McChrystal’s request for more troops. What’s lacking is not resolve, but a reason for continuing the occupation. In the eight years since the Taliban government was overthrown, we have not yet found Osama bin-Laden. We have not erased or mitigated the violent anti-American sentiment which dominates the Afghan tribal regions, spawning more insurgents by the day. We have ushered in neither peace, nor prosperity, nor real democracy for the Afghan people. But we have lost what is now approaching 1,000 American troops in the pursuit of all these objectives.

Supporters of a troop increase base their argument on the idea that securing Afghanistan is fundamental to American security. But diving headfirst into a political and military quagmire will put more Americans at risk, in the long run, than getting our troops out. See, I tend to view Afghanistan as an anarchic place that’s the graveyard of empires. But I think a lot of experts would agree.

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