BY PETER LOFTUS
After 14 years, Afghanistan has become America’s longest war, and many citizens have grown disillusioned. It is imperative that our nation questions our foreign involvements, but it is equally required that we fully think through the potential consequences of our actions. It is easy to advocate for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, but this type of perspective willfully ignores the potential ramifications and equally fails to posit a better path forward. Afghanistan is not a lost cause.
Retreating from Afghanistan would signal to terrorist organizations that the United States has no staying power, and that simply dragging out the conflict will elicit results in their favor. When Al Qaeda struck U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, we responded with ineffectual Tomahawk cruise missile strikes, which were widely ridiculed as showing the lack of U.S. resolve to combat the terrorist threat. This was followed by the bombing of the USS Cole, and then the attacks on September 11th. The U.S. may have the most capable military in the world, but if our foes doubt our resolve to use it, then we lose the effects of deterrence and it becomes nothing more than a paper tiger.
One of the critical challenges of our time is that of ungoverned spaces. Troublesome groups ranging from terrorist organizations to narco-traffickers inhabit these areas and utilize them for their economic and/or ideological exploits. Aside from the Taliban in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the issue of ungoverned spaces can be seen in Colombia’s travails with the Leftist FARC rebels, the drug cartels in Mexico, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region of Africa, ISIL in Syria and Iraq, Abu Sayaaf in the Philippines, and more. Ungoverned and under-governed spaces have become rife with conflict that has the potential to export instability to surrounding areas. An excellent example is how the conflict in Syria has catalyzed the spread of war into Iraq and a massive outflow of refugees. U.S. and coalition partners have already invested significant resources into creating a functional nation-state in Afghanistan. Although it may still be a work in progress, Afghanistan has made vast improvements since 2001. To leave too early could have significant and undesirable ramifications.
To understand the potential consequences of a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, one can simply look to Iraq as an example of a nation-building project that may have ended too early. Following the U.S. withdrawal, many of the top positions in the military and government were purged because the occupant was not a Shi’ite. This led to a hollowing out of the Iraqi military’s skilled leadership, and a significant degradation of the fighting capacity of the armed forces. The U.S. cannot afford to fight indefinitely, but it is imperative to find a responsible conclusion to our longest war.
In Afghanistan, the number of American troops swelled to over 100,000 during the surge in 2012, and has dropped significantly since then. As of today, the U.S. has only 9,800 boots on the ground in Afghanistan—a fraction of the earlier peak. In addition, this will contract further to 5,500 in 2016. If American military personnel rarely go on patrols, and primarily carry out airstrike and training functions, can this even be called a “war” in the traditional sense? The current presence of NATO forces is a sign of commitment to Afghanistan and its people, as well as serving to perform the aforementioned functions. With the Afghan military and police taking heavy casualties this year, this presence is essential.
What must be done is to create short, medium, and long-term plans to conclusively solve the instability that Afghanistan faces. The construction of a nation-state takes time. Take the U.S. political system for example. It wasn’t until 1787 that the Articles of Confederation were replaced with our current Constitution. It wasn’t until Marbury vs. Madison in 1803 that the Supreme Court fully solidified its function of judicial review. It wasn’t even until 1920 that women were given full suffrage with the 19th amendment. Institutions of government take time to build. It is not possible for NATO to shepherd the Afghan people indefinitely, but the least that can be done is to attempt to provide security for the time being.
Afghanistan has faced decades of conflict, but it is not a lost cause. The United States and NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan is a demonstration of resolve. Whether this nation-building project devolves into chaos as Iraq did, or is able to prosper with outside assistance, is a matter of willpower on the part of the international community. There is still hope for Afghanistan, and much progress has already been made. It would be a grievous mistake to betray the Afghans and cast them to the wolves. We must stay the course.