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Afghanistan is not the end

June 23, 2011

For all the talk about “choosing decline,” it bears being said that those who think America cannot afford to lose the war in Afghanistan is the true declinist without confidence in America’s position in the world.

It would be great if we could win the war in Afghanistan, except the US still has not clearly articulated what winning Afghanistan means and what steps are essential to that undefined victory. This reflects a general lack of strategy that has plagued the war since its outset. To the extent that everyone agrees that Afghanistan should not become a terrorist sanctuary, there is really very little clear idea of how many troops it takes to accomplish this, what those troops should be doing while they are in Afghanistan, and so on. It is already quite obvious that the actual terrorist sanctuaries affecting US security today are in Pakistan and other countries. Of course, withdrawing from Afghanistan is going to result in some degree of instability in Pakistan. What is less often mentioned is that accomplishing the objectives of killing al Qaeda members is destabilizing Pakistan, and the operations we conduct from Afghanistan are destabilizing Pakistan. Indeed, having a strong Afghan state is destabilizing to Pakistan.

It has been ten years. There may not have been more important things on our plate ten, or five, or three years ago, but there sure are now, and there is absolutely likely to be more soon.

Keeping Afghanistan from descending into a worse civil war ultimately requires much larger changes in policy than it does sustaining the current level of troop presence. It should be obvious, at least, that if we are happy with the current situation, we can be about this happy with much fewer troops. Keeping Afghanistan from becoming Afghanistan in 1991 or 1996 does not need about 100,000 US troops. It does need much better policies, but so far, having this many troops just reinforces the sunk costs fallacy that the current approach is working, and that if we do not follow through, we have wasted money and lives. Making enough of a dent in violence that we can extrapolate a purely imaginary trendline to victory is not a good use of American money and lives, and it is not a strategy.

I am actually quite confident we can, at least, “not lose,” in Afghanistan and come out with a relatively workable outcome for the US interests in the region. But even if we lose, it is not the end of the world. Pretending that it would be, and inflating the importance of the conflict beyond all reason, makes America less safe.

To wit, there are very few, if any, US allies who would feel safer with massive amounts of US troops left indefinitely in a landlocked Central Asian country. There are quite a few rival states which are grateful, however – and these rivals are ultimately going to be far more important for American foreign policy in the 21st century than Afghanistan. The notion that America’s ability to pursue its interests and fulfill a sound grand strategy is dependent on what happens in Afghanistan is utterly false. Our presence there does not make anybody in East Asia feel much safer, particularly if it results in limited US resources being redirected from their region. It does not make anybody in Europe feel much safer either, and indeed, much of Europe’s commitment to Afghanistan has been to keep NATO alive, presumably so the US can conduct its own enormously unpopular, strategically misguided show of support to NATO in Libya.

America’s credibility is far more damaged by refusing to conduct any sort of triage in Afghanistan than it would be by beginning to make a graceful exit. Most foreign leaders understand that their country is not Afghanistan, and that local circumstances rule. Credible compellence and deterrence are not possible with resources and manpower we do not have because we are frittering it away in another country – at this point the reality of our resource constraints overcome whatever benefits in signaling accrue from continuing to over-invest in failure in Afghanistan. Inflating the importance of Afghanistan further undermines US credibility because it signals that our priorities lie there, rather than wherever the next crisis of global importance arises. If America were to explain that its major foreign policy priorities lie, say, in maritime East Asia, and then refocus resources and efforts there while drawing down from Afghanistan to a minimal necessary level, that would eliminate most of the negative signals to the rest of the world. However, I am not entirely convinced that the administration, even if it has internalized these realities, is willing to go out and state them clearly. Pretending that we are winning and leaving, even if it saps our credibility less than pretending we are winning and staying, is a poor idea.

The US-led international order is fundamentally based on a geopolitical logic largely unaffected by the war in Afghanistan. The vast majority of US alliances and partnerships existed before Afghanistan, and will exist after – most of our allies would likely be glad if we withdrew from Afghanistan, if only because it would mean more US resources available to pursue their interests – and here it is worth saying that if we withdraw from Afghanistan only to pursue strategically incoherent missions in Libya and similar locales, then we are in real trouble as a country. The threats emerging to the US international order are not at all checked by an unending commitment to Afghanistan at the current levels. Afghanistan does not empower the US to deal with an increasingly multipolar Eurasia. It does not enable us to preserve the military, economic, or institutional foundations of US dominance over the maritime international system most vital to US prosperity and security. It is precisely because America needs to be able to engage with so many other parts of the world that it cannot afford to reify the importance of the “mission” in Afghanistan. If we signal this, and redirect our military resources accordingly, whatever enemies do misinterpret our withdrawal as a signal of weakness will find that actual, rather than hypothetical, US forces will be able to meet them.

Ultimately, the credibility most damaged by withdrawal from Afghanistan will be that of Americans, with other Americans. Spectacular, inflated claims about the importance of Afghanistan – on both sides – have been the sustenance of the culture of strategic tunnel vision which has plagued the country since the outset of the war on terror. For some, Afghanistan was the “good” war that served as a bludgeon against one’s enemies to criticize Iraq without appearing to be a dove or a weakling on foreign policy and defense. Others who believed in the importance of Iraq saw doubling down in Afghanistan as a complement, rather than an antidote, to the commitments made by the surge in Iraq. Afghanistan was the redoubt against the feared forces of “isolationism,” proof that the rest of the world mattered.

By making Afghanistan into a symbol and an ideological litmus test rather than one US commitment among many, it is our own credibility among other Americans we have most damaged. More upsetting than any subordination of the withdrawal timeline to “politics” rather than the “conditions on the ground,” is the confusion of domestic political debates for grand strategy. The war in Afghanistan, beholden to politics? Would only it were true. Right now the war in Afghanistan is beholden to ideological debates far too detached from the realms of actual politics to be healthy for American foreign policy. War is supposed to be subordinate to policy, not to itself. Now, there is a difference between war being beholden to politics and policy – but policy naturally flows from politics among other sources. It is one thing to criticize Obama for putting election deadlines above the “mission,” it is another to abdicate any responsibility in subordinating the “mission” (which ultimately turns out to be nothing more than the war itself) to any exterior political consideration. This is the difference between real war and absolute war that Clausewitz identified. Trying to calibrate Afghan efforts so that they obey only the war’s own logic is a dangerous illusion. The logic of an individual war cannot substitute for the absence of a comprehensive political vision of US priorities, it can only exacerbate it. We do not need to turn Afghanistan into the final stand of American foreign policy, and if we do, we only increase the outcome that stand ends in failure.

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