That phrase was used incessantly to describe the American policy options in Iraq and now is again used as our options for Afghanistan. The “stay the course” argument in Afghanistan was succinctly summarized in an article in The Economist as follows: Abandoning Afghanistan, leaving a vacuum for the Taliban to fill, would mean a victory for extremism everywhere, a destabilized Pakistan and a less safe world. Losing today’s war would make tomorrow’s wars more likely.
But there are several assumptions implicit in this statement that needs examination. First, it implies that the American-led NATO forces can indeed defeat the Taliban. It also implies that the Taliban are a threat to the stability of Pakistan and, because Pakistan is a nuclear power, a potential threat to the US and its allies (e.g. Israel) from terrorists gaining access to the bomb.
Afghanistan is not the same situation as Iraq. The country is a large, desperately poor landlocked nation in the middle of Central Asia. Supplying armed forces there is a logistical nightmare requiring the permission to transit Pakistan or other routes through the “Stan” countries adjacent to Russia. Of course, there is a price to be paid for this access. There is no way that Afghanistan could conceivably be a threat to the United States.
The reason that the US attacked Afghanistan was that the Taliban had provided sanctuary and the bases from which Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qeada planned the 9-11-01 attacks after they were forced from Somalia. But the Taliban are not al-Qeada. According to the CIA analysis, they are a large group within the Pashtun tribes which make up about 30% of the Afghan population. The Afghans are a tribal people with a warlike culture and a long tradition of expelling foreign forces, including the armies of Britain and Russia.
These lessons were obviously overlooked by the Bush administration. As Henry Kissinger recently said, “In 2009 the realities of Afghanistan will impose themselves. No outside power has ever prevailed by establishing central rule, as Britain learned in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th. The collection of nearly autonomous provinces which define Afghanistan coalesce in opposition to outside attempts to impose central rule. Decentralization of the current effort is essential”
The “cut and run” argument was well described in an article by George Friedman, Chairman of Stratfor (see www.stratfor.com) , essentially concluding that the only way that the Taliban could be blasted out of
“Overstretched, overwhelmed and over there”, The Economist, January 31, 2009 page 14.
Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and Founder, Kissinger Associates. Writing in The Economist, Jan 31, 2009, “An end to hubris”, page46
“Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” StratFor, January 26, 2009
their formidable mountain positions would be a large deployment of NATO (read US) forces and the conversion of Afghanistan into a relatively content and prosperous nation. This is a “nation building” objective, with which we are all too familiar. Is there any good reason to spend many billions of American taxpayer dollars fighting this war and building infrastructure in that country when ours is deteriorating?
The conclusion is that it would be far better if the US and its allies had never become involved in this effort. However, we are, and then the question remains how best to cut our losses. We leave this small “exit strategy” problem with the new administration. Good luck.
Byron K. Varme, Executive Director
Foundation of International Freedom (www.intlfreedom.org)
February 5, 2009