No Exit

The Prospect of a Lawless Afghanistan

By Gabriel Rom

As Samuel Beckett once said, “Fail again. Fail better.” The American project in Afghanistan has failed, but how do we, if at all, salvage eleven years of bloodshed? During the vice presidential debate, an oily Joe Biden sneered at Congressman Paul Ryan’s naivete on Afghanistan. According to Biden, if there was a ticket out of this graveyard of empires, it would be through the Afghans themselves; it was a ”pack up and don’t look back” strategy. Ryan felt otherwise. “Listen to the generals,” he preached between forced anecdotes about his love for American GIs. Ryan awkwardly stood his ground in the face of Biden’s gung-ho condescension, retorting that the Afghans needed help, not abandonment. For the sake of national security, he argued, we should refuse to put a drop-dead date on our withdrawal. Unfortunately, they were both right. As New Yorker reporter Dexter Filkins put it, “We can’t leave and we can’t stay: that’s the very definition of a quagmire.”

Recent months have brought a spate of attacks by “friendly” Afghan forces against their American counterparts. Dozens have died, and mistrust between the two security forces is at a boiling point. It is obvious that Afghans, at best, are ambivalent to the American presence, and, at worst, are violently opposed. The Taliban has again surged in popularity and power across the country. America has not been wanted in Afghanistan for more than a decade, if ever. Yet by leaving hastily, America opens up a political vacuum that the Taliban and al-Qaeda might fill. America’s mission in Afghanistan was not only to eliminate the masterminds of the September 11th attacks, but to destroy the al-Qaeda network completely. Foreign policy expert Peter Bergen has remarked that “the whole Taliban project has been about protecting al Qaeda.”

President Obama has said, wisely, that there will never be an ideal time to leave Afghanistan. You don’t get to leave horrifically bungled wars underneath the banner of “mission accomplished” (which, ironically, was closer to Biden’s theme than to Ryan’s). In many ways, America lost Afghanistan years ago and everything since has been damage control. Leaving Afghanistan is a necessity, but there is a strong case to be made for leaving slowly. A phased drawdown allows America to recalibrate its forces rather than leaving with its eyes shut.

Make no mistake about it: the war in Afghanistan might have been completed in six months, but disintegrated into an eleven year occupation due, in large part, to American hubris and haste. Terror prevention lost out to nation building. President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld underfunded the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), allowed Pakistan to play both sides of the coin, and refused to invest substantial resources in Afghan infrastructure. The United States cannot remake Afghanistan in its image even though our nation’s leaders had their hearts set on it.

Morally, such an endeavor is questionable; pragmatically, it is impossible. But we are where we are. These are mistakes that America must live with. Contrary to Biden’s claims of a strong and stable Afghan society the civil society of Afghanistan is an artificial construct propped up by American manpower and money. Afghanistan has no native organs of state and is mostly comprised of tribes that see themselves as autonomous. The notion of a unified national identity is a foreign concept. A unified armed forces that serves all of Afghanistan is a pipe dream of the Obama Administration. Even as Biden assured the country that Afghanistan would remain stable, a fractured post-occupation Afghanistan is a risk that the Administration seems willing to take.

Nothing destroys votes more quickly than staying in unpopular wars. During the debate, Biden mused that if only his Afghan friends would take a dose of American individualism, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and take “responsibility,” things would all work out for the best. According to Biden’s logic, America has no responsibility for Afghanistan’s future. The United States cannot occupy a foreign nation for over a decade and expect to leave the work of rebuilding to the occupied. Such paternalism smells of the logic used in the colonial scramble out of Africa. The European powers knew they were on the wrong side of history, and they packed up and left Africa without taking an ounce of responsibility for the conflicts that followed.

As the number of foreign troops dwindle, the Afghan Taliban has surged back to political and cultural relevance. The Taliban is not a single political entity but a loose group of affiliated networks that share some fundamental principles of religious law, jihad and allegiance to certain mullahs. Some of these groups, like the Haqqani network, have direct connections with al-Qaeda; others do not. According to Nadira Geya head of the Directorate of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan for the United Nations., “Old mujahideen commanders used to feel that if they did anything wrong they would be held accountable. But after the departure of US and NATO forces…they feel that they can do anything they want.” According to a 60 Minutes report by CBS journalist Lara Logan, the Taliban receive considerable training from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Logan asserts that the narrative being sold by the Obama administration of a defeated\ al-Qaeda which is “one drone strike away from obliteration” is “total nonsense.” Logan’s claims are difficult to substantiate but offer an important counter- narrative to the Administration’s. Some policy realists believe that the danger of an untended Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda is just a hawkish myth. But there is enough overlap between al-Qaeda and the Taliban to warrant serious concern. Paul Cruickshank, a fellow at the NYU Center on Terrorism put it well when he stated that “the danger of al-Qaeda again setting up operations in Afghanistan should be neither exaggerated nor discounted.”

It is true that subtle points on national security are anathema to the spectacle of the debate, but when Joe Biden stated that al-Qaeda has been completely obliterated, he spun a half-truth, ignoring a wealth of evidence that argues otherwise. al-Qaeda might be a weakened force, but a lawless Afghanistan and an emergent al-Qaeda remains a possibility. Reasonable people can disagree over the seriousness of this threat, but if America is going to learn from the failure of its war in Afghanistan, the poverty of the current situation cannot be ignored. We cannot shut our eyes to what we are running from.

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