Wednesday night, President Obama is scheduled to announce his plans for reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan. According to the LA Times:
Pentagon and White House officials say about 10,000 troops will probably come home this year, a bigger number than Gen. David Petraeus wanted. …In 2009 the president coupled his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan with a pledge to begin removing some of those forces this summer. U.S. officials and outside experts familiar with recent deliberations said Obama was leaning toward withdrawing all the additional troops by the end of 2012 or early 2013. That would leave close to 70,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The case for remaining in Afghanistan seems extraordinarily weak to me.
- Even if there is a credible case that the war against the Taliban was justified in the wake of 911, it seems particularly odd to remain there a decade later. Al Qaeda has largely evacuated the nation (as CIA chief Panetta noted: “”I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less…there’s no question that the main location of Al Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan.”). Given this fact, remaining in Afghanistan reminds me of the old joke about the drunk who was looking for his keys under the street light. He admitted that he lost his keys elsewhere but decided to keep looking where there was light.
- The ruling kleptocracy seems, at best, unsupportive. As President Karzai warned in response to a recent bombing of civilian houses: “If they continue their attacks on our houses, then their presence will change from a force that is fighting against terrorism to a force that is fighting against the people of Afghanistan. And in that case, history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers.”
- Domestic support is weak. A recent poll by the Hill revealed: “Seventy-two percent of those polled said the United States is fighting in too many places, with only 16 percent saying the current level of engagement represented an appropriate level.” Given our long-term structural deficit, a decision to remain engaged in these wars will necessarily require either (1) deeper cuts in our largest domestic entitlements or (2) a decision to delay reform for another day. We cannot devote $1 million per year per deployed soldier given our current fiscal conditions. Any every dollar spent to prop up Karzai et al is a dollar that could arguably be put to better use at home.
- Even if there is a case to be made that building a stable Afghanistan will limit the ability of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to reassert themselves, is there any evidence that our efforts at nation-building have been successful? David Brooks cites World Bank figures that 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP stems from spending related to the military and donor community presence (one wonders if these figures take into account the contribution of opium). Brooks notes: “It overwhelms provincial governments. It fuels corruption. As aid workers grow frustrated by nonfunctioning Afghan bureaucracies, they build their own parallel ones that, in turn, take responsibility from and infantilize the Afghan agencies that are going to have to administer the country in the long run….Many gains that have been made may be unsustainable. A flood of money washed into Afghanistan, and the reports warn about what will happen when the flood dries up in a few years.”
- Contrary to the above figures regarding GDP, the World Bank also reports: “The opium economy is equivalent to more than one-third of Afghanistan’s licit economy. It is the country’s largest source of export earnings, and it comprises a major source of income and employment in rural areas.” After almost one decade of “occupation,” to use Karzai’s term, Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of opium. According to the UNODC World Drug Report (2010, p. 38): “By itself, Afghanistan provides 85% of the estimated global heroin and morphine supply, a near monopoly.”
Given the heavy dependence of foreign spending and the continued power of the opium trade, is there any doubt that the minute we dismount from Afghanistan—whether it is in a year or in a decade—things will revert to the pre-2002 status quo?
Given the facts that (1) Al Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan, (2) the US and NATO are viewed as occupiers by the Afghan kleptocracy, (3) there is limited domestic support for continued involvement, and (4) nation-building has largely failed, I would like to better understand the justification for continued involvement in this war?
My recommendation for the President: Announce an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan to be completed by year’s end (if not sooner).
As a domestic policy guy, I admit that my thinking on these issues may not be nearly as sophisticated as those who are steeped in foreign policy (e.g., Grover Cleveland). What is your view?