Does the U.S. have a vital strategic interest in Afghanistan-Pakistan that justifies our continued military presence there? Sadly, the answer is No.
In some ways, the theoretical debate is irrelevant. Until we’re operating in support of a credible and legitimate national government, until we have a unity of command that includes allies willing to fight and able to equip their troops when they do so, and most importantly, until we can define the outcome we’re trying to achieve, no amount of strategic urgency will make a difference, because the outcome will be failure. Failure militarily, but more importantly, failure politically.
The idea that somehow the war can be prosecuted in a political vacuum, as if the willingness of the American people to support it will have no bearing on the availability of operational resources, is unrealistic. And if eight years in, we’re still debating whether or not there’s a strategic justification for being there, that means that, for all intents and purposes, the political battle is lost.
If there was a moment when the U.S. government could have used the urgency of popular sentiment to commit the kinds of resources necessary to stabilizing Afghanistan, it was in 2001-2002. But the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld administration was too risk averse at the time, and too obsessed with the big trophy in Baghdad, to do so. That urgency has now subsided, and it doesn’t matter how strong a strategic argument anyone formulates today, it’s not going to be enough to regenerate it.
This is why I was not as disappointed as some when President Barack Obama announced an initial troop increase last spring, nor as alarmed as others by the tactical orientation to COIN/Stability Ops. Because I’m convinced that the war is over in all but the shooting. And it will end about the same way as what’s now happening in Iraq.
My answer, if it matters, to that theoretical strategic question is that, yes, a stable South Asia is essential to U.S. interests and should be a top priority for our foreign and defense policy. It will help ensure the peaceful integration of a rising Asia into a position of global leadership. It will also promote alternate openings to Central Asia, and subsequently help reconfigure our approach to the Caucasus, hopefully in ways that promote Great Power cooperation without exacerbating rivalries.
But all of those are broader regional goals that can be advanced in other ways than by our military presence in Afghanistan.
Yes, Afghanistan will probably return to violence should we withdraw militarily. It is threatened perhaps even more fundamentally, in terms of sovereignty, than Iraq. But I’m not convinced that it will necessarily drag the rest of the region down with it, and there are even ways in which our military withdrawal — especially if it is not accompanied by a diplomatic withdrawal — might more effectively distribute responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan among regional powers and neighbors.There are certainly potential scenarios where everything goes terribly wrong. And some of those scenarios could have horribly destabilizing consequences. But an ineffectual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan does nothing to prevent them, and even weakens our ability to intervene in some of them.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, through his incompetence and corruption, is offering Obama a generous gift. It’s known as an out. Hopefully, Obama will be wise enough to accept it.
Judah Grunstein is managing editor of World Politics Review, where this essay was published as “The Afghanistan War in Theory and Practice.”