I've been thinking a lot lately about one of the final scenes from the movie Charlie Wilson's War — the scene where the CIA officer Gust Avrakotos tells Charlie Wilson about "the Zen master and the little boy."
The effect of the scene (and to some extent the whole movie) is that America's inaction following the withdrawal of the Soviets allowed the "crazies" to hijack the country and use it as a safe haven to launch the September 11 attacks on America.
I recognize that there are valid questions about the necessity of having over 100,000 U.S. and allied service members serving in a country with only about 100 Al-Qaeda members present. We can't be in Afghanistan forever, and it is a mistake to think that we can turn the country into a beacon for democracy.
But that misses the point of the Zen Master scene. Gust Avrakotos was not proposing that the U.S. military go in and take up the occupation that the Soviet Army recently abandoned. He was simply saying that some targeted development assistance — "re-stock the sheep herds, give 'em jobs, give 'em hope" — would give the Afghan population a stake in their future and something to do other than fight each other (or help Al-Qaeda).
The point, then, is not troop numbers. It is whether we stay engaged with Afghanistan even as we responsibly draw down our troop numbers in-country.
Having made great strides toward improving the security situation in the strategic areas of Helmand and Kandahar, we must continue to stay engaged through diplomacy and development. Doing anything less — withdrawing from the world as many Republicans would apparently have us do — would be the height of recklessness.
As the Cold War wound down, America walked away from its leadership role in this vital region. We must take great care in not making this mistake again.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons