Monday night's GOP debate revealed many candidates' desire for an accelerated withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan, a stark reversal of almost 10 years' worth of Bush-era foreign policy dominating Republican rhetoric toward the Middle East. This shift, especially on the part of popular front-runner Mitt Romney, has been met with some dismay by fellow Republicans. Although the candidates debated the circumstances under which withdrawal would occur — Romney preferring to defer to his generals while Ron Paul would fully utilize executive authority as commander in chief — they did not address the potential consequences of a full military drawdown for the U.S. and its allies.
The sequence of events that would occur in Afghanistan without NATO is unpredictable, but the next administration must be prepared for the potentially unpopular consequences of a politically popular decision. Although public opinion and bipartisan consensus appear to support withdrawal, the possibility of civil war, a resurgent Taliban, or the non-military means to contain them have been absent from the debate. As we consider these consequences and their solutions, we must realize that our security has not improved, even after nine-and-a-half years of occupation. As the U.S. and its allies have fought against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other militants — each side trying to slowly bleed the other to death — we have expended our nation’s wealth and an entire generation of servicemen and women in the pursuit of an evasive victory in Afghanistan. Whether we stay for another 10 years or another 10 months, Afghanistan’s troubles will eventually have to be solved by the Afghans. Our victories against Al-Qaeda will be won through clandestine and law enforcement operations, not on the battlefield.
At the annual conference of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), writer and Vietnam veteran Bing West argued the current approach of maintaining highly visible patrols was simply making Afghans rely on American financial and military aid. Instead, West recommended a shift to a "heavy advisor force" that would help the Afghan military and police do what NATO forces have been doing for almost a decade while providing U.S. air support from drones, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft. The line, he said, would be drawn at the point when the U.S. itself becomes a target; otherwise, the Afghans will have to work it out among themselves.
A resounding withdrawal concern is the increased potential for Afghanistan to devolve into a state of all-out civil war, not to mention the human rights abuses and lawlessness. A strictly American concern, however, is withdrawal will be a crippling blow to the projection of American strength in the region. West contended that pride led us to believe we could "buy progress" in a country that has no interest in establishing a democracy similar to our own.
Author of Ghost Wars Steve Coll spoke on the same panel as West at the CNAS conference, and he countered that "we owe the Afghans better than a civil war." Although he is correct, one should not assume that American aid is solely restricted to a military capacity. In fact, West argued that "warriors being expected to be nation builders is nuts." With so many other institutions available for humanitarian and governance advisory roles, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the State Department, there is no reason for the U.S. military to attempt to wear so many hats to the detriment of their primary skill set.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan, as I've stated before on PolicyMic, will likely be a bloody transition for Afghans and a pride-swallowing, hubris-shattering event for true Bush Doctrine believers. The true defeat, however, will be suffered by Al-Qaeda, a death cult that sought to destabilize another superpower by way of a prolonged campaign in the "graveyard of empires." Our answer to them should be to move the battlefield to where they cannot prevail against a resolved and tempered intelligence and special forces community whose recent successes are growing more significant.
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