Anthony Cordesman’s “Afghanistan: The Death of a Strategy” provides a realistic analysis of the US problem in AfPak. It points to a sensible conclusion. Unfortunately, the conclusion it actually offers is of the classic “nothing-left-to-do-but-continue-to-muddle-through” variety. That too is realistic, in the narrow sense that this is almost certainly what the US Government will attempt to do. Nonetheless, it hardly seems like a sensible prescription, given that the patient—i.e., our strategy—is “not only merely dead, it's really most sincerely dead.”
It might be more useful to recommend an actual change of strategy. Or, perhaps, to recommend that we change to an actual strategy.
The underlying problem for U.S. strategy in the AfPak region is that the culture of its populations is fundamentally antithetical to ours. There is no meaningful constituency there—i.e., no native socio-political structure that actually wields any power to decisively shape events—that wants to see the region’s society, politics, and values evolve in any manner remotely similar to the fantasy we have been pursuing. Virtually every political force or actor actually driven by its own internal interests and vision (vice a mere desire to live lazily off of naïve Western largesse) is, in every practical and ideological sense, the enemy of everything we stand for. Our AfPak FantasyLand Construct (APFLC) can therefore be pursued only through a permanent commitment of energy and resources that A) keeps the region continually inflamed against us and B) we clearly are unwilling and unable to sustain.
We continue to chase this fantasy only because our poisonous domestic partisanship makes any genuine change in strategy a potential suicide pill for the party proposing it. In the meantime, ironically, the American public recognizes, in its uniquely semiconscious way, what our policy community evidently cannot. Despite our stay-the-course bravado, we are de facto changing our strategy, as Cordesman acknowledges. Unfortunately, we are doing so in an utterly incoherent manner driven by the electorate’s war weariness and the nation’s broken budget.
The correct strategy begins with calling a referendum in Afghanistan asking the Afghan people (a useful but essentially nonsensical term) whether they want us to remain or go. Once the “Go!” vote is in, we will demonstrate our deep respect for the Afghan people and our affectingly genuine commitment to democratic processes by leaving—lock, stock, and barrels of money. And take any genuine Afghan allies home with us. Who can complain about that?
The only real danger to this approach is that Afghan leaders and voters might suddenly wake up and recognize that the gravy-train is actually serious about leaving the station. Therefore the question must be artfully posed in such a manner as to guarantee a resounding endorsement of American withdrawal. It’s easy to envision us muffing it through clumsy word-smithing and our usual counter-productive propaganda efforts. One must of course concede the possibility, however unlikely, that Afghan voters will instead beg us to stay. If you agree that we would have a moral obligation to do that, then surely you will agree we also have a moral obligation to ask their opinion on the matter.
As a result of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan will lose its ability to blackmail us by holding hostage our supply routes, leaving us free to treat it as the hostile state it is. (Insofar as it is a state at all.) Thus Pakistan will at last achieve its self-fulfilling nightmare of creating a solid Indo-American alliance against itself. Accomplished con-men that they are, Pakistanis who harbored bin Laden for years will whine bitterly that we are once again “abandoning” them. Experienced American victims of that con will reject this—the logic of the man who murders his parents, then claims the sympathy due an orphan.
But wait! Pakistan is a nuclear-weapons state. We must therefore remain closely allied so that we can offend them daily, face-to-face, with the presence of our infidel advisors and trainers. In real life, however, the fact is that we have a long history of dealing successfully with hostile nuclear-weapons states. (We will soon be gaining even more such experience by dealing successfully with a nuclear-armed Iran.) In such cases, good fences make for better neighbors.
The Pakistanis will also continue to meddle mercilessly in Afghanistan. That country will no doubt serve as the same bleeding sore for them that it has for us. Bereft of non-Muslim foreigners to sustain the flames of jihad, it’s just barely possible that the Afghans will finally succumb to exhaustion and make peace among themselves—if only to free up energy to wage war against Pakistani imperialism. More probably, all sorts of bad things will happen there, mostly done by Afghans to other Afghans.
True, when not too busy butchering each other, some players in Afghanistan may attempt to harm the United States. Such efforts will be unpopular among those parties who have learned that “waking the sleeping giant” is more trouble than it’s worth and seriously distracts from the struggle against “near enemies.” Fortunately, the United States has dropped the clueless strategic nudism that permitted 9/11. We have spent the last decade learning pretty well how to defend ourselves from people whose arsenal consists largely of painfully under-performing underwear bombs and violently defective Xerox toner cartridges. We will continue to kill those elements at every opportunity while getting on with our lives.
The most insidious objection to realism in the AfPak region comes from those ready to label it a “cut-and-run” strategy. This is the kind of logic that leads some folks to sleep with an unattractive date for fear of being labeled gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (as Seinfeld noted), but it’s not much basis for an enduring relationship. Far from being horrified at America's wanton abandonment of its faithful Afghan protegé, our real allies will heave a sigh of relief that their American protectors are capable of some common sense after all.
One has to expect politicians—elected, bureaucratic, and uniformed—to be decisively swayed by the short-term logic of the orphaned parricide and the “steady-as-she-sinks” cruise-boat captain. True national strategists (if such an animal really exists) need to think long-term. Our invasion of Afghanistan was fully justified and our experiment there has not necessarily failed. We simply need a longer perspective. Twenty or thirty years from now, a generation of Afghans will remember how much better life was when the Americans were there. At that point, they may seek to integrate themselves into the civilized world. We will respond by trying, once again, to locate Afghanistan on a map.