Foreign Policy

George Will is Right

It's time for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan


This week, prominent conservative pundit George Will wrote a column advocating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. His piece, not surprisingly, was met with instantaneous anger, disdain, and derision from most of the right.

"But let's be honest," wrote noted neoconservative William Kristol on The Washington Post's blog. "Will is not calling on the United States to accept a moderate degree of success in Afghanistan, and simply to stop short of some overly ambitious goal. Will is urging retreat, and accepting defeat."

Tossing around the words "retreat" and "defeat"—or, as one critic more creatively asserted, Will's column "could have been written in Japanese aboard the USS Missouri"—is the rhetorical equivalent of the vacuous "chicken hawk" charge leveled at any civilian who supports military action. It's emotive and hyperbolic, and I probably have used it myself, but it's not an effective argument.

Judging from their harsh reaction to Will, it's not clear when, if ever, some conservatives believe the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan. Even less clear is how the victory narrative is supposed to play out. Does this triumphant day arrive when every Islamic radical in the region has met his virgins? If so, after eight years of American lives lost, the goal seems farther away than ever.

Or is victory achieved when we finally usher this primitive tribal culture, with its violent warlords and religious extremism, from the eighth century all the way to modernity? If so, we're on course for a centuries-long enterprise of nation building and baby-sitting, not a war. The war was won in 2002.

If the goal is to establish a stable government to fill the vacuum created by our ousting of the Taliban and al-Qaida, we've done quite a job. Most Americans can accept a Marine's risking life and limb to safeguard our freedoms. But when that Marine is protector of a corrupt and depraved foreign parliament—one that recently legalized marital rape and demands women ask permission from male relatives to leave their homes—it is not a victory worth celebrating.

You know, idealism regarding Afghanistan's future begins to dissipate the first time we read the words "why don't we negotiate with the moderate Taliban?"

But while strict Shariah law is acceptable, illicit drugs are not. If most of us agree that America has no business foisting its notions of wrong and right on other cultures, why, then, did we spend hundreds of millions of dollars eradicating poppy crops (one of the only productive crops of the Afghan farmers)? Was it because our own war on drugs has gone so splendidly?

It is perplexing that advocates of a long-term engagement in Afghanistan—folks who often reject social engineering as a tool of public policy—accept the idea that a nation with scores of ethnic groups, widespread corruption, no industry, and no bonding of language or nationality can be coaxed into constructing a stable and lasting democratic society.

What seemed to irk Will's detractors most, however, was his inconsistency. You can go from patriot to cheese-eating surrender monkeys in a mere 750 words. And if you once supported Operation Enduring Freedom, you apparently have cast your lot with Kabul forever. Which makes sense, because it's going to take that long for American troops to find a puppet Islamic state that pretends to value any enduring freedoms.

Naturally, the invasion made sense after the 9/11 attacks. Fighting terrorism with force makes sense. The subsequent military victory was worth celebrating. But if every military engagement includes an open-ended plan for nation building that pins our fortunes on the predilections of a backward nation, we are, indeed, setting ourselves up for failure.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his Web site at


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  1. “”The time has come for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan.”””

    Are you kidding, we have to prove we can stay longer than Russia did? 😉

  2. Wasn’t intended to be a question.

  3. “His piece, not surprisingly, was met with instantaneous anger, disdain, and derision from most of the right.”

    As long as Spite Right pseudocons think that “liberals” are against a war, they will be for it – and against anyone else who’s against it (e.g., Ron Paul).

  4. No surge for Afghanistan?

  5. Stay or go,
    what’s important is that we define a policy
    and STICK TO IT.

    This flip-flopping around is the worst of all possible worlds. Our friends have nothing to hope for, and our enemies have nothing to fear.

  6. “The time has come??”

    Why all of a sudden now? Because the other party is in power? Because we can make it really uncomfortable for the adminstration having pressure from both sides?

    The time should have been exactly one minute after we bombed all the known terrorist sites. If they rebuild, bomb them again. Why should we care about the sovereignty of a country that can’t even build a country?

  7. Nuke (or carpet bomb) the swat valley, et al.

    That is all.

  8. Mike in PA is correct. I’ve been a withdrawal advocate since 2003. The situation is relatively unchanged since then. Anyone changing their tune should be answering the question “Why didn’t you say this six, five, four, three, or two years ago?”

  9. “”This flip-flopping around is the worst of all possible worlds.””

    What flip flopping? Obama seems to be standing fast with Bush’s approach to Afghanistan.

  10. I would be more inclined to listen to Mr. Will if he didn’t change his mind about these things as often as I change underwear. If you try to keep up with his changing opinions in regards to our foreign entanglements you will get a nasty case of whiplash.

  11. Before we throw too many stones, let’s consider the various sorts of flip flopping:

    1) The Afghanistan flip might be a product of Will actually looking at the results of our efforts there. This sort of flip flop should be encouraged by everyone. If only more people would change their mind when observable facts contradict their presuppositions.

    2) If the flip is caused by the fact that the party in charge of the executive branch, then by all means flame away. That sort of flip flop should be stamped out by any means possible.

    My take on Will is that he has always been a fairly reluctant interventionist. Both in Afghanistan and Iraq. I can’t cite examples, but that is just my take.

    p.s. Why don’t we just pull out and then buy all the poppies? For way less money we could create a real industry in Afghanistan and financially squeeze the Taliban. Is there any rational reason that this wouldn’t be a good idea (other than the war on terror folks getting their panties in a bunch)?

  12. I agree with you Jimbo that a flip flop for the right reasons is not something worthy of condemnation. But Will has a lousy track record of flip flopping, especially in regards to our recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was an adamant proponent of both wars, but as soon as things got hairy he was the first to abandon ship.

    I don’t get the impression that he did this simply based on our results.

    More here-

  13. While we are on the subject of flip-flops….

    I seem to recall that during the Bush years, Democrats and their allies in the media ridiculed as “chickenhawks” those neocons who advocated war while never having fought themselves. As I recall, even Democrat members of Congress freely used this term of derision. It was suggested that such persons were morally unfit to order other men and women to their deaths.

    (Aside – like “tea bagger,” the term “chickenhawk” has homosexual connotations)

    This being the case, perhaps those Democrats and their allies will now ask Mr. Obama and Ms. Pelosi (to name a few) to describe for us the military experience they have, which makes them morally fit to order others into harm’s way. Or have they changed their minds on this issue?

  14. Given the poverty in these world shitholes, why isn’t it cheaper to just have the CIA and military intelligence acquire “assets” to infiltrate and watch the bastards, with the U.S. taking precise action as required? Aren’t there a bunch of Herbert Philbrick-types in Central Asia that would, for a nice Swiss account, spy on the Taliban for a few years before joining a witness protection program?

  15. “…accept the idea that a nation with scores of ethnic groups, widespread corruption, no industry, and no bonding of language or nationality can be coaxed into constructing a stable and lasting democratic society”

    It worked for Switzerland.

  16. “I would be more inclined to listen to Mr. Will if he didn’t change his mind about these things as often as I change underwear. If you try to keep up with his changing opinions in regards to our foreign entanglements you will get a nasty case of whiplash.”

    I don’t know who you’re thinking of, but Will has been anti-nation-building as long as I can remember. He may have been for the use force after 9/11 (correctly, in my opinion), but that doesn’t mean he was ever for staying there 8+ years to sort things out.

    It’s my recollection that both George Will and Pat Buchanan were anti-Iraq invasion as well. For that they were called “Paleo-conservatives”.

  17. It’s my recollection that both George Will and Pat Buchanan were anti-Iraq invasion as well.


    Will has not been consistent, and that is the problem.

  18. a country that can’t even build a country

    Afghanistan is a “country” like the American west was a “country” before the Europeans came over and civilized the place. Tribes are not nations, nor are ethnic and religious gangs. There are only two choices regarding Afghanistan: extermination/subjugation, or withdrawal. Pity the fool Obama. He really did inherit a mess.

  19. The choices of extermination/subjugation versus withdrawal is a false choice.

    The Afghan tribes can also be subverted away from their predilection to Islamist violence against the western world by well-directed money, indoctrination/education, selective training of local anti-terrorist troops, destruction of safe havens anywhere else (Pakistan, I’m looking at you!) and extremely violent US military reprisals that destroy anyone suspected of aiding Taliban or other violent factions.

    Not as easy as killing everyone or leaving them to attack us again, but notice that I did not use the term “nation building” once. The country can sink further in poverty and ignorance as long as the populace stays in their deserts and hills and does not bother anyone else.

  20. Given that George Will’s foreign policy opinions have followed a very well defined trajectory over the past 8 years, I’m not sure how he can be described as ‘inconsitent’. It’s not like he’s been flipping back and forth willy-nilly.

    His changes also seem to long predate the change in political tides so it’s hard to say it’s pure partisanship.

    I suspect that Will, like many people, realized somewhere in the 2003-2004 timeframe that, in the rage of emotion that followed 9-11, they’d made a serious error of judgement in terms of how we should respond.

    The fact he was willing to change his opinions based on experience is the reason Will is one of the few conservative commentators I still have any respect for. Would that more on the right would take after his example.

  21. The suggestion that Will is advocating defeat is disingenuous. We won the war in Afganistan and the war in Iraq. Why should the victor in battle be obliged to rebuild the conquered? Furthermore, why should this even be considered part of the war?
    Will is not being inconsistent in advocating military action without advocating nation building.

  22. SD,

    I take a different view of Will’s changing perspective. As I stated above, if it was simply a matter of Will suddenly realizing he was wrong and admitting as such I would probably agree with you. But he hasn’t, and his views on Iraq are particularly troubling. By any measure the surge in Iraq produced results that seemed unobtainable prior to its implementation. Will went from cheerleading the spread of democracy through the removal of Saddam that would cause a domino effect in the middle east, to opposing the surge, to ignoring it altogether.

    I don’t see him at any point saying “I was wrong about the surge” or “I initially supported the war and I was wrong” for that matter. I don’t find his perspectives reconcilable.

  23. If you have a big powerful army, the correct foreign policy is almost always colonialism/imperialism, just look at China. They support whatever corrupt government is most favorable to them. America could do that, except for the tricky problem of American democracy. Eliminate that and we can start subjugating conquered peoples and molding them in our own image.

    The fact that the U.S. government doesn’t have a colonization plan is a failure in and of itself. They should be paying American families to move to these countries.

  24. I think the most important question regarding nation-building is this: does the target nation want to be rebuilt using U.S. blueprints?

    As far as the war goes, we need to wage real war or get the hell out. By real war I mean B-52s dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs on civilian population centers to pound them into submission. Fuck all of this chasing around in the mountains after handfuls of suspected terrorists.

  25. This is the classic conundrum of superpower states in the modern world. You can win in Afghanistan, i.e. subjugate the population to your will, etc. But you will never do it with paternalistic bribes and force that isn’t forceful enough.

    The Greeks were “unconquerable” in their heyday, and their slow decline back to Balkanization (its a tradition!) by the second century B.C. was “fixed” by the Romans.

    Unlike any other entity barring Alexander himself, the Romans united Greece into a single polity…through sheer force. The Greeks and their Macedon friends were quite uppity and feisty with the Romans, until Lucius Mummius obliterated Corinth…down to the last brick, putting every man to the sword and selling the women and children into the slave markets at Delos. Problem fixed!

    Obviously the United States doesn’t and shouldn’t have the inclination to such depravity, but its the only thing that gets shit done in situations like this.

    The Soviets under their succession of General Secretaries couldn’t subjugate Afghanistan, but the Soviet Union under Stalin? No problem, would’ve been Ass Kicking-101.

  26. “But let’s be honest,” wrote noted neoconservative William Kristol on The Washington Post’s blog.

    LINK PLEASE. Getting sloppy around here.

  27. Oh, also! LINK PLEASE.

    This week, prominent conservative pundit George Will wrote a column advocating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

  28. It’s my recollection that both George Will and Pat Buchanan were anti-Iraq invasion as well. For that they were called “Paleo-conservatives”.


    I dont know about Will but Buchanan calls himself a Paleoconservative. Also the men are very different, Pat is still trying to restart his right-populist protectionist train (with a little race baiting for good measure). Will seems to be the run of the mill back off government type (although I dont know where he stands on the war on drugs).

  29. Here’s what we do:

    Pull a majority of forces out of Afghanistan, leaving a moderate force in the eastern tribal region. Use that as a base of operations to run spec-ops with the mission of capturing bin Laden. Once Osama is in cuffs and on a plane to the US for a trial and a nice stay in Leavenworth, we pull ALL forces from the region.

  30. Tater, don’t bogart that stuff dude. Pass it along like a good kid.

  31. For at least a number of years, Will’s been skeptical of accomplishing wider aims in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s one of the few big-name conservatives I’ve seen who hasn’t stopped his skepticism of top-down social experimentation at the U.S. border. Perhaps he wasn’t allowed enough before, but hey, neither were most people – particularly when Afghanistan was being billed as the “good war” for Democratic Party purposes.

    With regard to whether he’s still ambivalent on Iraq – as bad as I consider the political situation in Iraq to be – Afghanistan is not Iraq.

    Afghanistan is a much worse place to be fighting a war in than Iraq. It is also probably less important.

    For those reasons, there’s a cogent argument to be made for the surge but against Afghanistan, especially when the latter constitutes as a nation-building mission where there is no coherent nation.

  32. Perhaps he *wasn’t loud enough* before, but hey, neither were most people…

    Besides the bulk of the big name ‘Conservative’ commentariate, besides Buchanan, Derbyshire, Steyn, and a few others, is still all in with regard to spreading post-modernism to the sink-hole that is Afghanistan. I’ll take what I can get, considering.

  33. The military is ill suited for the mission as it is defined by our political leadership. George Will simply draws the necessary conclusions. We should pull out the Army and send in a bunch of community organizers (Peace Corps, anyone?). In time this would teach everyone the appropriate lesson. At least we wouldn’t lose a war we don’t care to win in the first place. Losing the peace would be irrelevant. Keep the powder dry.

  34. @bend –

    while I agree with others that nation building is wrong, there is a such thing as just war, just pre war and just post war.

    We do have obligations if we have any morals.

  35. i didn’t have the time to go through all the posts to see if this was already commented upon; but i will say this: a true simpsons fan will appreciate the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”

  36. I am glad that more conservatives are coming out in support of withdrawal from Afghanistan. I dont think America can ever make a graceful exit from either Iraq or Afghanistan. but I do know that unless they do exit this will turn into a real-life version of Forever War

  37. The relevant parts of Afghanistan (Tora Bora, at least) should have nuked post-9/11. That would have had the most practical effect (killing the motherfuckers who needed to be killed) and greatest deterrent effect–and would have obviated any need for that grandstanding Iraq War bullshit (if you are one of those dopes who thought that was a “good faith” engagement).

    After that, special forces commandos and drones where needed. Fuck that stupid country otherwise–sustained military operations are hopeless there.

  38. George Will is nothing but a Republican elitist, no better than a Democrat elitist. Therefore, I don’t give a damn what he says, for or against ANYTHING.

  39. Every sneaky news guy likes to slip something in as if it’s a given such as, “naturally after 9/11 invading Afghanistan made sense.” What garbage! The US should stop invading countries on a pretext or a lie. Bin laden does not represent Afghanistan and we should not be there.

  40. We just need to find some “friendly” faction to cut a deal with and call it a victory. That’s what we should have done to begin with.

  41. Yes, it’s time to leave Afghanistan, but George Will isn’t right. His idea of leaving is to remove our troops but step up attacks from the air. What about peace? What about nonintervention. What about sanity? What about taking a few years off from killing people?

  42. Please do not refer to people who support foreign intervention as conservatives.

  43. The lesson of 9/11, where the worst act of war (or terrorism-take your pick) originated in far off Afghanistan, is that failed states provide fertile soil for the attacks. Neo-cons did not make this up, and “imperialism” (Western of US) did not invent the threat. Thus, no one above, not Harsanyi nor Will, are serious about addressing solutions to a bone fide human security problem.

    For instance, does anyone mention nuclear-armed and fundamentalist sympathizing Pakistan? Of course not! Such complications would kill all the simplistic “head in the sand” solutions proffered above.

    For decades, experts and politicians have warned us of the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Now that that time is firmly and certainly upon us, what do libertarians have to offer us? The Letter of Marque?

    Ron Paul (and others) have proposed this to get Bin Laden. And years after the US has offered the equivalent reward for many Al Qaida leaders, Bin Laden remains at large. Therefore, I think that single “solution” can be judged a failure, too.

    Where do we go from here? Simply leaving Afghanistan – unless the Wild West of Pakistan, the refuge of fundamentalist Islam of Waziristan, is also addressed – is no solution. Instead, it is an invitation to see a sober, tragic and possibly worse than before past repeated: a nuclear 9/11.

    There will be radioactive blood on your hands, libertarians. I hope yo will be happy when it comes, because I won’t. I will be raging mad-at YOU!

  44. The only reason Obama is hanging tough on Afghanistan, and welshing on his campaign promises about Patriot Act and Gitmo, is that being soft on national security is his weak flank wrt to his main agenda of socializing the US.

    Its all political calculation, and being tough on Afghanistan is purely a case of his having painted himself into a corner by posturing about Iraq as the ‘wrong war’ (and Afghanistan as the good one) as a way to beat on the Repubs while faking an attack from the right.

    The real danger is that since its political calculation and not real conviction or grand strategy (note that in every other aspect of foreign policy he’s verging on worse than Jimmy Carter) Obama will flounder about aimlessly like LBJ & Westmoreland in Vietnam.

  45. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane

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