We've seen a debate rage over the future of the United States' mission in Afghanistan in the wake of the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians one week ago. Calls for an accelerated withdrawal ahead of the previously set 2014 target date are being met with arguments that this act would hand victory to the Taliban, and the insistence that we must stay in order to protect America's honor. Though the may be well-intentioned, these arguments are wrong, and they overlook some simple points: the United States will be leaving — whether tomorrow or in two years' time — so Afghanistan will have to stand on its own eventually. Recent actions by the U.S. military — the massacre, the Koran-burning, the video of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses — have all poisoned the U.S.-Afghan relationship to the point that an effective partnership is an impossibility. Therefore, the best thing the United States can do for Afghanistan at this point is to leave as quickly as possible, providing the best way for Afghanistan to move towards becoming a functioning nation-state.
This may seem counter-intuitive. But it is clear that in the past decade American efforts to build a civil society and functioning economy have had little success. The expatriate quarter of Kabul may be functioning, but the majority of the country is not. Afghanistan has little modern infrastructure to speak of, the illicit sale of narcotics makes up a large chunk of the economy, and much of the country is still in the grips of an insurgency that is growing stronger and more deadly. If the U.S. couldn't address these conditions during the past decade, it is hard to imagine that we will suddenly turn things around in the next two years with the Afghan population currently furious with us.
Rather than the presence of the United States, what Afghanistan needs is buy-in from their neighbors, something that has only happened to a limited degree during the time of the American occupation. Afghanistan is believed to have more than $1 trillion-worth of minerals beneath its soil — copper, iron, lithium, so-called “rare earths” along with modest reserves of oil. Resource-hungry China has already been forming relationships in Afghanistan by signing contracts to develop oil fields in the far north of the country. However, the Chinese entry into the Afghan market has been cautious and limited, in part because of the uncertain security situation, but also because Afghanistan is currently a quasi-protectorate of the United States. Obviously, this puts state-run Chinese firms in an uncomfortable position.
Pakistan could play the greatest role in improving the security situation in Afghanistan, and the Pakistanis have a vested interest: a pipeline project, backed by $8 billion in funding from the Asian Development Bank. The TAPI project would bring natural gas down from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and into Pakistan (and then on to India, the “I” in TAPI). Pakistan already faces chronic shortages of natural gas, both because of the growing population and the use of natural gas as motor vehicle fuel.
TAPI is routed to run through the heartland of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has long been a cloud hanging over the project. Since the Taliban is supported in part by Pakistan, they could use their influence to quiet down the Taliban insurgency, yet have not since the Taliban acts as a counterbalance to American power in the region. Take us out of the picture, and Pakistan has far less reason to fuel the insurgency and much more to push for peace since this will ensure them a much-needed source of energy.
In short, an American withdrawal would pave the way for other regional players to become more deeply involved in Afghanistan, the one thing that actually could provide a stable and prosperous future for the country. It is clear that the American mission is no longer any help to Afghanistan, therefore the logical step is to end it, as quickly as possible.
Photo Credit: kostyukov