On July 5th an Op-Ed appeared in the NY Times, co-written by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) entitled 'Let's Not Linger in Afghanistan'. They put forth an argument that I've heard summed up as 'declare victory and come home.' These Senators are part of a growing, bipartisan movement afoot in Congress, mirroring the sentiments of more and more Americans, that want to see an end to the 10 year war in Afghanistan. In fact it's one of the few truly bipartisan things going on in DC these days. That in and of itself begs for attention.
We invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, less than a month after in fact, and it made sense to do so at the time. The country was run by a regime that actively, and unabashedly supported and sheltered terrorists who attacked the US and other nations. It was the primary base and training ground for Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda network and was the home of Bin Laden himself. When President George W. Bush announced the invasion to the American people, he stated clearly the reasons and goals.
"On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime."
This we accomplished in fairly short order. We destroyed al Qaeda's support and training infrastructure and forced the Taliban leadership from power. Bin Laden and the bulk of the remaining al Qaeda network were pushed into the mountainous area along the Pakistani border. By December Hamid Karzai was selected as Chairman of the Interim Administration. Six months later he was chosen for a two year term as Interim President before winning the first post-Taliban Presidential election in 2004. So by 2004 Afghanistan was installing a democratically elected government. Fast forward to early 2009 and newly elected President Obama announces an increase in Afghan troop levels, now that we are finally drawing down from the non-sensical Iraq war that had distracted us since early 2003. Obama stated that the addition troops were "necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires." Then in December of 2009 President Obama, speaking at the military academy at West Point, announced a surge of some 30,000 additional troops to "bring this war to a successful conclusion." Finally, on May 2nd of this year, Osama Bin Laden was tracked to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed in a SEAL team raid, ending a hunt that actually started in the mid '90s. So here we are in mid 2011, and the President announced the beginning of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which he had promised from the stage at West Point. But the drawdown will be much slower than the buildup, taking a year to return to the Fall 2009 troop levels of around 70,000. A full withdrawal would not occur till 2014!
So, by the current timetable, over thirteen years after it began and about ten years after the Karzai government took power, US troops will finally leave Afghanistan. By then we will have spent the better part of a trillion dollars, and that's only the direct military appropriations! We may never know what the exact number is, once you factor in all the ancillary costs and pallets of cash airlifted into Kabul that nobody seems to really be able to account for. Even more important than the cash are the lives lost. Over 1500 Americans thus far have lost their lives halfway around the world, averaging over 40 a month just this year, but rising month over month. You can add 920 additional deaths for the rest of the allied coalition. According to The Guardian news, you can tack on another 3800+ Afghan civilians, just since 2007, with numbers also continuing to rise. Don't forget, these are only the deaths. Current US wounded totals exceed 11,000! Then there is the strain on our entire military and their families as they return for tour after tour after tour. Many current American soldiers probably have more time 'in country' than our WWII veterans did. This is not a normal existence, with families split apart for 6 months or more at a time. We are wearing these men and women down, inch by inch. Treating them as if they were inexhaustible and ignoring the psychological, as well as physical, toll that some will never, ever recover from.
I'm just not sure what we're even accomplishing anymore. After ten years we still have only been able to really secure the larger cities. The hinterlands are still just about as dangerous as ever and still mostly outside the control of the central government. Just as they have been for centuries. Intelligence reports indicate that there are likely less than a hundred low level al Qaeda still in the country. The biggest single issue, as I see it, is really the Karzai government itself. Institutional corruption has prevented any deep reforms and undercut any real trust with the Afghan people. This is not a problem that can be fixed by yet another tour by the 10th Mountain Division! We have long since reached a point where all we're doing is keeping the various insurgent groups scattered. We can't eradicate them, any more than the British could in the 19th century or Russians in the 20th. I doubt Alexander had any better luck himself when he 'conquered' Afghanistan over 2000 years ago! The Senators' OP-Ed speaks to the problem succinctly when it states:
"Today, despite vast investment in training and equipping Afghan forces, the country's deep-seated instability, rampant corruption and, in some cases, compromised loyalties endure. Extending our commitment of combat troops will not remedy that situation." [emphasis added]
This is where we find ourselves today. We've spent dearly, in lives and treasure, and in the end we are not even the deciding factor in this equation. In many ways we never were. For the last six or seven years all we've really done is act as Karzai's army. But the problem isn't really military in nature, it's governmental. It's institutional. Afghanistan probably hasn't had a firm central government since the fall of the Persian Empire. Outside the main population centers it's still a tribal system that, aside from AK-47s and RPGs, is little changed from when the British occupied the country over 170 years ago. At least in Iraq there was a national governmental structure, despite the sectarian tensions. Afghanistan has none of this and out in the tribal lands, I'll wager, they don't even want it. We invaded to destroy al Qaeda and oust the Taliban. We accomplished most of this in the first year. All we've been doing since 2004 is desperately trying to hold together a corrupt government that most Afghans don't even trust. A government, in fact, that came off looking very shady in the last Presidential election.
Look, I understand what everyone is worried about. We're all scared that when we pull out the bulk of our troops that the scattered elements of the Taliban will coalesce into a strong enough force to bring down Karzai and return to power. It is a valid concern, but will things be much different between summer 2012 and the end of 2014? Will the Afghan government be any stronger? Any less corrupt? We are dealing with a culture that seems to almost enshrine corruption and cronyism. A nation that has lived on the opium trade for generations. As I've said on more than one occasion, in the end the only people really in a position to 'win' in Afghanistan are the Afghans themselves. Whether we leave in 2012 or 2014, they are the ones who will determine if the new government stands or falls, not America or NATO.
It's time to start bringing the bulk of our troops home, not by the end of 2014, but by the end of 2012. Do it for the troops, who have suffered, bled and died for 10 years already. Do it for the Afghan people who have lived with a foreign army of occupation for a decade, good intentions or no, and must be allowed to choose their own destiny. Do it for our economy, which cannot continue to hemorrhage money in the hundreds of Billions while we lay off teachers and watch our infrastructure crumble. Finally, as President Obama put it in his Afghan policy speech, "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home." Way past time, if you ask me.