It's Never Too Early to Finally Leave Afghanistan

The original purpose of the Afghanistan war has long been fulfilled. So why are U.S. forces still over there?


Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced last week an unexpectedly early deadline of summer 2013 for winding down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Well, kind of, supposedly, or perhaps with the same amount of seriousness that the administration took the July 2011 drawdown deadline that never was. The same New York Times story reporting on Panetta's announcement also notes that "Mr. Panetta said no decisions had been made about the number of American troops to be withdrawn in 2013, and he made clear that substantial fighting lies ahead." (In other words, there are plenty of American soldiers and Afghans alike who will still be dying for a mistake.)

Part of what Panetta means is that Special Operations—still U.S. military, still involved in fighting—will be taking on more of the burden of our impossible mission and possibly even increasing in number, while conventional forces start leaving in larger numbers.

This is likely to be just one more example of a decade's worth of pronouncements from American officials about progress or improvement in Afghanistan that shouldn't be taken very seriously. As Foreign Policy reported last week following Panetta's much hyped statement:

In Chicago, meanwhile, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes insisted there will be no change to the 2014 plan [agreed to in a Lisbon meeting in 2010 by NATO], warning that "We will need allies to remain committed to that goal." The president's Special Assistant for European Affairs Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, evidently ignorant of Panetta's statement, assured reporters that the Secretary of Defense "will be very clear about our plans to remain on the Lisbon timeline."

About 90,000 U.S. troops are there now, with up to 22,000 supposedly already set to leave before the end of 2012. As The New York Times reports, there has "been no decision on the number of troops to be committed to the mission as it evolves in 2013 and into 2014."

Another possible barrier between Panetta's intentions and reality in 2013/2014 is the election between now and then. While Mitt Romney, the most likely Republican contender, has approved of the end-of-2014 withdrawal, he also seems to think that Panetta's announced plan to have the Afghans assume more responsibility for their own security starting before then is unconscionable. Romney announces that he intends, somehow, to end the war "by beating" the Taliban. As a decade and more of U.S. forces and commanders might say, good luck with that.

France has also declared that it is bugging out with its 3,900 troops (most of them hunkered down in defensive positions nowadays—U.S. forces have long complained about the political restrictions our European allies place on their small numbers of troops) ahead of its NATO compatriots by end of 2013. That announcement came at a joint appearance of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, where Karzai seemed to agree with Sarkozy that getting foreign combat troops out by that deadline would be a good thing. But then again Karzai has never been a satisfactory satrap, even beyond the questionable "democracy" behind his elected leadership in a land to which we are allegedly trying to bring real democracy.

In his interesting new book The Operators—spun off the Rolling Stone feature that cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his job leading our Afghan forces by revealing his and his staff's contempt for their civilian chain of command—reporter Michael Hastings notes that our own diplomats often understand that "U.S. forces are not fighting and dying to combat terrorists, but are fighting and dying in local political disputes."

Our forces on the ground rarely understood the specifics of the complicated tribal chaos they were involved in, and in specific cases, as Hastings concluded, having our troops leave any specific valley "is as meaningless as staying in those valleys—no impact on our national security or the stability in Afghanistan whatsoever."

Despite all our efforts, our military and security situation in Afghanistan has been getting worse—2011 saw the highest number of civilian deaths in the war since it began, at 3,000. And they've been getting steadily worse, with each of the past five years having a higher number of deaths than the year before. In 2011, 410 of those deaths were directly caused by U.S. and allied forces, even beyond the question of how many of those deaths were caused by the fact that we are there providing a reason and target for Taliban insurgents to attack. See this marvelously deadpan detail from The New York Times: "French ground troops remain only in Kapisa Province, a relatively quiet area with little insurgent sympathy or activity, other than a few suicide bomb attacks on the French."

As I noted in 2010, too many American big thinkers and military strategists feel aggrieved by the Afghans' "failure" to rise to the occasion that our invasion and occupation are supposed to have provided for them. It's true our allies and enemies are equally menaces to our troops—Afghan soldiers are occasionally killing or attacking our own, and those of the French and our other allies, in more than three dozen incidents in the past five years. Not that our troops haven't been also wantonly killing civilians as well, and urinating on dead soldiers' corpses to boot. Let's say there are curious tensions on all sides of this contentious relationship between occupiers and occupied. The Afghan army we will want to take up our mantle as we leave is largely written off, even by U.S. analysts, as a bunch of illiterate, craven, deserting, drug addicts who are likely to just be the enemy in disguise anyway. Since the "enemy" is also just another huge gang of armed Afghans, this isn't too surprising.

Lt. Col Daniel Davis wrote at length about his own on-the-ground experiences in Afghanistan for Armed Forces Journal. He wrote:

What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground…. In all of the places I visited, the tactical situation was bad to abysmal. If the events I have described [numerous anecdotes of security failures and fecklessness and out-of-control violence]— and many, many more I could mention — had been in the first year of war, or even the third or fourth, one might be willing to believe that Afghanistan was just a hard fight, and we should stick it out. Yet these incidents all happened in the 10th year of war.

As the numbers depicting casualties and enemy violence indicate the absence of progress, so too did my observations of the tactical situation all over Afghanistan.

When having to decide whether to continue a war, alter its aims or to close off a campaign that cannot be won at an acceptable price, our senior leaders have an obligation to tell Congress and American people the unvarnished truth and let the people decide what course of action to choose. That is the very essence of civilian control of the military. The American people deserve better than what they've gotten from their senior uniformed leaders over the last number of years.

The Afghans don't love us for what we've done for them, and our soldiers and diplomats all know it. Because we haven't done much that they should love us for. In a country that's known little but war for most of its people's lifetimes, with a GDP grossly dependent on both international aid (that aid alone is almost equal to Afghanistan's entire GDP, which has a measured per capita income of just $528 a year) and illegal drugs, we haven't been godsends.

Rather, we make weak attempts to eradicate their best-selling crops and our international aid, as a World Bank report from November 2011 summed up, "in a situation of weak governance have been major sources of rents, patronage, and political power" helping prop up a government seen almost universally as useless and corrupt, and when tribal enmities arise, as an outright enemy.

Villagers commonly fear the very local police we fund and arm, creating comically horrific scenes where Afghan special forces and police get in public and murderous gun battles over whether someone was having sex with someone's young male cousin. Our much-despised "night raids" on people's homes aren't building trust. We were spending absurd amounts building roads to, as Hastings concludes, "mak[e] it easier for us to drive around the country to kill the disgruntled peasants." Afghanistan is less modern, rich, irrigated, and civilized than it was 40 years ago. Almost anyone with any ambition or intelligence wants nothing more than to leave.

And now maybe we want to as well. We certainly should.

Sure, Obama said that Afghanistan was "a war of necessity" that we "had to win." But it wasn't true; and he got suckered into giving the military a surge of new troops that tripled our footprint and quadrupled our expense to allegedly carry out counterinsurgency strategy in a way that would actually pacify and revive the country. Obama's first general that was truly his, McChrystal, liked to talk about how the unfathomable complexity of the Afghanistan situation made it difficult to be quite sure whether we were definitely making progress or not.

But mostly it should have been easy to see that we were not making progress—his own lower level commanders and troops often objecting strenuously to upper-level insistence on counterinsurgency strategy based, in theory, on not killing enemies but protecting civilians (though both enemies and civilians continue to be killed), a technique that actual American soldiers are ill-trained to carry out.

The chaos we are likely to leave behind will be somewhat our fault, yes. But it would be idiotic to make an entire nation's social and political order our responsibility forever, even if the very fact that we have announced with some believability an intention to leave means that our leverage over their government and their insurgents will start falling. We can't let the fact that past government actions have created unmanageable problems be an excuse to expend life and treasure forever trying to manage those problems, a lesson we need to learn with both domestic (hello, health care) and foreign policy.

Panetta admits that the cost to the U.S. and its NATO allies of propping up the Afghan army might be getting prohibitive, and that, "The funding is going to largely determine the kind of force we can sustain in the future," though I don't believe he'll end up meaning it. After all, when was the last time cost considerations dictated foreign policy or military spending? The troop costs, despite our vaunted international coalition, are mostly ours. We are the only nation with over 10,000 troops there.

The political costs for bad foreign policy are also too low. Most Americans don't genuinely care. Even an "end to the war in Afghanistan" will likely mean we can concentrate more on the expansion of the war into Pakistan, across whose border our Afghan enemies often run and hide. This will mean the concomitant expansion of largely ignored war crimes, like drone attacks on those who arrive on the scene of previous drone attacks, or on funerals mourning the victims of previous drone attacks.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told West Point cadets last year that "Any future secretary of defense who advises the president to again send a big American land army into the Middle East or Africa should have their head examined." That wisdom applies as well to wars that we (and he) foolishly got us stuck in for too long in the first place. Being doggedly committed to a policy with no clear end that consists of shipping tens of thousands of men and billions of dollars of weapons across the globe so young men can march around and maybe get shot at or step on an IED, or maybe if they are lucky get to shoot at and kill some native who is, in his own mind, fighting for his own tribe or gang or country's defense from foreign invaders, was and is similarly mad. Everyone seems to know that the situation in Afghanistan is and will remain a mess, though some seem to pretend that more of the same intervention and occupation that led to this mess will somehow—through unspecified means—fix things. But there is no reason to believe that's so and no reason to keep trying.

Whether Panetta's drawdown schedule is true or not, it does not seem that the United States has learned any important lessons from the experience. After a long propaganda campaign, 54 percent of Americans seem ready to accept a new war in Iran, and Syria may be on our agenda as well.

With wars being fought overseas against people unable to actually harm our homeland, all paid for by borrowing money and with no military draft in force, it's easy enough for the American people to just sigh and forget about it. Consider the fact that media coverage of Afghanistan has dropped by half over the past year, and realize why it's easy for the D.C. establishment to get away with whatever it wants in such foreign adventures.

Any legitimate argument for us being there—shattering the government that sheltered the 9/11 attackers and disrupting those attackers' network—have been over for a very long time. It's galling to realize we may leave a situation little better than the one we could have left a long time ago. But it's true—and sad and depressing is the price you pay for a horrible mistake. What we are up to there now has nothing to do with al Qaeda or preventing terror against our homeland, and it has very little to do with building a democratic and sane Afghanistan. The lesson we need to learn for the future is not how to manage these insurgent-fighting or nation-building affairs more intelligently, or brutally, or quickly; it's to not get involved in them at all.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and the forthcoming Ron Paul's Revolution (Broadside).