I try to avoid being just reflexively anti-war, though I have some respect for people who are. To sort of invert the way Jimmy Carter put it, I believe that war is always evil, but it may sometimes be a necessary evil. So, as uncomfortable as I have been with the long occupation of Afghanistan, I have never decided what, if anything, we should do instead.
But now, eight years into the occupation and awaiting President Obama's speech tonight, I find myself leaning toward a new position on the issue. I think it's time to stop our continuous escalation of troop levels and begin bringing most of our troops home. I think there is probably reason to leave a small number of troops deployed to assist with only the most essential security details in Kabul and Kandahar and for training Afghan security forces. I think we should maintain our ability for special forces to pursue high value al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. But we should not be patrolling cities and villages and occupying remote mountain outposts. We should not have a large-scale presence on the ground in Afghanistan.
Let me briefly explain my reasoning. In my understanding, when we attacked Afghanistan, we had several goals:
1. To overthrow the Taliban,2. To strike a major blow against Al Qaeda,3. To kill or capture Osama bin Laden,4. To replace the Taliban with a less extremist Afghan government.
Goal #1 has been accomplished. The Taliban has been ousted and will not return to power. We should not equate all of the insurgents we are currently fighting with the Taliban. Afghans have always fought foreign invaders. We should not think that everyone who is shooting at Americans is the Taliban or supports the Taliban.
Goal #2 has been accomplished. Our fighting has largely changed Al Qaeda from a network into a movement. The US military is great at dismantling networks, but defeating a movement takes soft power. The enemy has changed, so it's time for our strategy to change too.
Goal #3 of course has not been accomplished. But a large-scale occupation of Afghanistan is not going to help this anyway. Especially when recent reporting suggests bin Laden is in Pakistan. Fusion of local intelligence and special forces operations is our best chance here. I believe we will catch bin Laden when a Pakistani Pashtun tribesman turns him in.
Goal #4 has always been the most complex. It may be impossible--if it's even warranted--to install a central government that has control over all of Afghanistan. And to set this as the bar we have to meet is to keep us there forever. The term "valleyism" has been used by some to describe how many rural Afghans think. Put simply, they'll fight anyone who comes into their valley, whether they are Persians, British, Russians, Americans, or even Afghans from the central government in Kabul. They don't call it the "Graveyard of Empires" for nothing.
I also think that the war in Afghanistan--which might be making us safer--is sapping resources from things here at home that definitely would make us safer. In my next post I'll discuss this in more detail.
For now, I'm getting ready to watch President Obama's speech tonight. He's expected to announce the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and a plan to begin drawing down troop levels in three years. I think this is probably the wrong course, but I'm willing to hear him out. He is a smarter man than I am, he has put a lot more time into thinking about it than I have, and he has information that I don't have. (All of which could also be true of a tyrant of course.) But most importantly, I still trust Obama's instincts on the big things.
So, Mr. President, I think you are probably wrong on this, but I'm listening.