Doug Bandow
Campaign For Liberty
Monday, Dec 28th, 2009

With al-Qaeda dispersed, Afghanistan doesn’t matter much to America. The country is a human tragedy, of course. But so are North Korea, Burma, Congo,Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Yemen, and Somalia. Rather than allow the Afghan mission to slide into nation-building, the Obama administration should begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan originally looked like the good war. The U.S. ousted the Taliban, which had hosted Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Orchestrating the Taliban’s removal simultaneously weakened the terrorists who struck America and punished the regime which gave them sanctuary.

Consolidating power in a reasonably democratic government in Kabul was never going to be easy, but the Bush administration tossed away any chance of doing so by prematurely shifting military units to Iraq for its quixotic crusade for democracy in Mesopotamia. The Obama administration now is attempting the geopolitical equivalent of shutting the barn doors after the horses have fled. The situation today is a mess. The Karzai government is illegitimate, corrupt, and incompetent. Afghan security forces are of dubious quality and efficacy.

Drug production permeates the primitive economy. Taliban forces and attacks are increasing. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admits that Afghanistan is “deteriorating.”

Into this mess the president is sending an additional 34,000 American troops, plus whatever number America’s European allies deign to send (which may well be different from the number they promise to send).

In explaining his new policy President Barack Obama dropped the humanitarian rhetoric with which he bathed his March “surge” of 21,000 troops. Rather, he distanced himself from the crusading George W. Bush, arguing that “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda” and refusing to “set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests.”

Yet President Obama appears to have done precisely the latter. All told, the U.S. and its allies will have some 120,000 or 125,000 troops in Afghanistan, with many of the NATO forces deployed where they aren’t needed in order to avoid combat. Yet this total is only twice the original Western occupation force inBosnia, with a much smaller population and a genuine peace to keep.

The allies will only have a few thousand more personnel than did Russia during its bloody, failed occupation. And Western forces will be barely one-fifth the numbers contemplated by U.S. anti-insurgency doctrine.

With mountainous terrain, forbidding deserts, dispersed population, violently antagonistic ethnic and tribal groups, and fiercely independent culture, it is easy to understand why Afghanistan acquired the reputation of the “graveyard of empires.” Kabul has had periods of peaceful, stable rule, but by indigenous figures who respected local autonomy, as during the 20th century monarchy. Washington’s hope of reaching across continents and overcoming Afghan realities to build efficient state institutions and stable local communities never looked good, but has been made even less promising by the human wreckage left after three decades of almost constant, and constantly debilitating, conflict.

The only sensible argument for staying is, as the president put it, “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda.” But that already has been done.

Al-Qaeda has been reduced largely to symbolic importance, as most terrorist threats now emanate from localized jihadist cells scattered about the globe. Some U.S. intelligence operatives believe Osama bin Laden to be dead. If not, he likely is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. National Security Advisor Jim Jones estimated that there are just 100 al-Qaeda operatives now in Afghanistan. Whatever the right number, Afghanistan today is largely irrelevant to al-Qaeda’s operations.

Even if the Taliban returned to power, it might not welcome back the group whose activities triggered American intervention. Nor would al-Qaeda necessarily want to come back. A Taliban government could not shield terrorists from American retaliation. Writes Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School: bin Laden “and his henchmen will always have to stay in hiding, which is why even an outright Taliban victory will not enhance their position very much.”

In many ways Pakistan offers a better refuge, and there are plenty of other failed states—Somalia and Yemen come to mind—in which terrorists could take refuge. In fact, much of al-Qaeda’s plotting for 9/11 occurred in America and Europe. Exerting greater control in Afghanistan won’t prevent additional terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Far more important than Afghanistan is nuclear-armed Pakistan. However, continued fighting in the former is more likely to destabilize the latter than increased Taliban influence. In fact, Islamabad was a strong supporter of the last Taliban government. Renewed Pakistani accommodation with a resurgent Taliban might be offensive to Washington, but likely would minimize any destabilizing impact.

If an American build-up in Afghanistan isn’t necessary to confront al-Qaeda, what other purpose is served by escalating the war? Creating an effective pro-American government in Kabul would offer little geopolitical advantage compared to accepting a brokered political settlement which kept al-Qaeda on the outs.

The only other justification is humanitarian. The Afghan people would be better off under some kind of Western-backed government.

However, this is true largely despite rather than because of the Karzai administration. The current regime lacks both ability and honesty; President Hamid Karzai’s reelection was flagrantly fraudulent. While the status of most Afghans, especially women, is better than under the Taliban, the improvements are relative, given President Karzai’s dealings with fundamentalist warlords and drug producers. And any gains are constantly threatened by the bitter conflict now raging. Estimates of the number of dead Afghan civilians since 2001 range past 30,000, a high price to pay for whatever the Karzai government represents.

In any case, humanitarianism is an inadequate justification for America waging war. David Ignatius of the Washington Post denounced proposals to adopt “a more selfish counterterrorism strategy that drops the rebuilding part,” but it is easy to be generous with other people’s lives. Washington is filled with chicken-hawks and ivory tower warriors who have never gotten near a military base, let alone considered donning a military uniform, yet who busily concoct grand humanitarian crusades for others to fight.

However, the cost in lives and money—as well as the liberty inevitably lost in a more militarized society—can be justified only when the American people have something fundamentally at stake in the conflict. They do not have an interest worth war in determining the form of Afghan government, degree of central government control, or liberties enjoyed by the Afghan people.

Imagine if President George W. Bush had announced that his administration was going to sacrifice several thousand American lives, trigger a conflict that would kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, spend $2 trillion or more, strengthen Iran’s geopolitical position, damage America’s international reputation, and reduce U.S. military readiness in order to organize an Iraqi election. If he was honest, President Barack Obama would tell the American people something similar today about his policy in Afghanistan. If he did, the response is easy to imagine.

Indeed, likely popular resistance offers one of the strongest arguments for drawing down U.S. forces and shifting from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism. Even if bolstering the Karzai government is feasible, doing so will be a costly and lengthy process, one for which popular support already has largely dissipated. It makes no sense to embark upon a campaign which could take years if popular patience is likely to be quickly exhausted. Then precious American lives truly will be wasted for no purpose.

Seven years ago State Senator Barack Obama warned against “a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, and with unintended consequences” in Iraq. Unfortunately, that looks like his policy for Afghanistan, however much he might talk about deadlines and “exit ramps.”

War is sometimes an ugly necessity. But most of America’s recent wars have turned out to be matters of foolish choice. Going into Afghanistan was necessary initially, but staying there today is not. With the Democratic president and Republican neoconservatives alike supporting the war, only concerted pressure from the American people will bring the conflict to a close.