As badly as we want to pull all of our troops home from Afghanistan, a rush to pull up stakes leaving nothing but chaos and instability in our wake would be a mistake, and would seriously call into question America’s leadership role around the world.
We’ve all heard the stories. We’ve all heard about the toll this incessant “war” in Afghanistan is taking on our troops. We’ve heard about how our soldiers are cracking after four or five or six or even nine tours between Iraq and Afghanistan; tours that were extended to a year or more in theater, and then often extended for months beyond that. We’ve heard about how soldiers arrive back home after multiple tours and are told that they won’t have to return, only to be sent back again.
We know that the suicide rate amongst our soldiers is through the roof. We know that the multiple lengthy deployments is causing an immense amount of stress that eats away at their very humanity, and that they’re not getting the care and treatment that they need–a stark failure of our society and of our government that claims to love and respect and cherish them and their service to their country. In fact, the way they’ve been treated by their own government that sent them to war in the first place is in so many cases utterly disrespectful. Look no further than the appalling conditions that greeted the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
We know that oftentimes soldiers are encouraged to “soldier on,” given cursory treatment for stress related mental disorders, and with a pat on the back and an “atta boy” (or girl) sent back to fight. We know all this, and we want it to end.
The Koran burnings on a U.S. base and the resulting reprisals combined with the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales have only intensified the “bring our troops home now” sentiment to a fevered pitch. And rightfully so. These incidents only serve to further illustrate the near impossible task being put on our men and women serving in Afghanistan. And it’s quite likely that the actions of Sgt. Bales has set the effort to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people back years.
It’s easy to find hundreds of reasons why the United States should simply pack up and leave Afghanistan for good. Most of the arguments are very reasonable to reasonable people. The trouble is that it’s not that simple. It never was, and it never will be.
You see, we’re responsible for Afghanistan, whether we like it or not (and by and large we don’t). As former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell told George W. Bush in regards to Iraq, “You break it, you own it.” The same principle applies to Afghanistan. We broke it. We routed the Taliban government, sent Al Qaeda running for the hills and scurrying to Somalia and Yemen, and began the process of establishing a new civilian government.
At that point the focus should have been turned to building the Afghan civilian government up to where it could stand on its own without the aid of the U.S. military. And the mission was well on its way to success by most accounts. The problem is that the Bush Administration got distracted by its maniacal obsession with removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, and the mission in Afghanistan went to hell. Instead of building the Afghan government and training a police force that could keep their own peace in their own country, U.S. forces were diverted to a misguided mission in Iraq. The Taliban was allowed to reconstitute and refortify. The Afghan government that grew from the ashes became as corrupt and inept as any in the world. And by the time the folly in Iraq was completed, it was too late to pick up where the diverted forces left off.
What we’re stuck with is a complete mess. We’re stuck with is a feckless Afghan government that is busy playing both sides against itself. The only thing preventing the Taliban from overtaking the Karzai government by force in Afghanistan is the U.S. military because the Karzai government dawdled in its efforts to stand on its own two feet. In the estimation of every reasonable and informed person, official and non-official alike, to merely pull up stakes now would be to reverse every single human dignity gained by the Afghan people and once again plunge them into crushing oppression.
This is truly the definition of a no-win situation: We’re damned if we pull up stakes and get out as quickly as possible, and we’re damned if we play out the timeline set forth by Hamid Karzai and President Obama. So let’s remove politics from it, let’s remove war financing from the equation, and let’s focus on what’s really important at this point: We’re responsible for Afghanistan. We broke it, and now we’re struggling to patch together the pieces and glue back it into some semblance of what it was. But we own it nonetheless, and we are responsible, not to the Karzai government, not to the Taliban, but to the Afghan people.
We made a promise to the Afghan people when U.S. forces went into Afghanistan in 2002 that we were going to help them build a government that would restore a basic level of human dignity and provide opportunity for future generations to grow and thrive through education and self governance. But because the Bush administration got distracted by the shiny bauble in Iraq, after 10 years the Afghan government still is not ready to stand on its own. And we owe it to the Afghan people to leave them with a measure of security and independence and an ability to fend for themselves.
That’s going to take a little doing, and it’s going to have to involve the Taliban in some manner. What will have to take place—what the U.S. government has been trying to facilitate for the better part of the last three years—is for the Taliban and the Karzai government to sit down and find a way to coexist; to govern together (kind of like what we wish Republicans and Democrats would do, but I digress). The problem, as Afghanistan war veteran Wes Moore said on “Meet The Press” last Sunday, is that “if there’s one group of people that the Karzai government trusts less than the American forces it’s the Taliban, and the same goes for the Taliban. If there’s one group that the Taliban trusts less than the Americans, it’s the Karzai government.” (See clip below—the discussion is well worth watching.)
To leave without some sort of settlement between the Taliban and the Karzai government would be as irresponsible as the rationale for the war in Iraq. To leave the Afghan people to their own devices at this stage of the game would confirm every suspicion they have about us and “American Imperialism.” It would also destroy America’s leadership credibility around the world.
We all want out. This has got to end and the sooner the better. We all want our troops home, never to have to deploy to Afghanistan again. But we have to do so responsibly and in a manner that does not undermine the gains the Afghan people have made in the last decade. The situation in Afghanistan may be a hot mess, but U.S. forces have nonetheless accomplished something: They’ve given the Afghan people hope for the future.
Stick with the time frame. Get the Taliban and the Karzai government talking. Work with them to find a way to work together. Impress upon them that we’re going to leave, but that we want to leave behind a government that can provide a semblance of stability for its people instead of forsaking the last 10 years with nothing but chaos to show for it.
The events of the last month—particularly the actions of Sgt. Bales—have surely shortened the timetable for withdrawal. But instead of hastily declaring “victory” (whatever that means nowadays), and tucking tail and running, we owe it to our troops and to the Afghan people to withdraw in an organized and orderly fashion that will allow both the troops and the Afghan people to hold their heads high.
This was the first of several posts on Afghanistan by OB Rag writers. Here is the second by Frank Gormlie.