What a decade of war has achieved.
The just-passed anniversary of 9/11 presents the West with an opportunity to reflect on what a decade of war, and hundreds of billions of dollars, has achieved in Afghanistan. As of this date, 2,627 Western troops have died in that country, mostly Americans, Britons and Canadians. Taliban casualties have been much heavier (though impossible to document with much accuracy) and along the way, there have been military successes. But as the old saying goes, the West is winning the battles but losing the war. The local insurgents can simply wait out the allies. No amount of surges, no new strategy, and no highly competent Western general is going to change that.
The past several days have seen a series of violent attacks against American and Western targets in that country. On Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on Washington and New York City, all eyes were on those two cities after reports of a credible terror plot designed to disrupt the remembrance of that dark day. Thankfully, nothing happened, and the memorials in America’s capital and largest city went ahead as planned. But while they were in progress, word came that halfway across the globe, a NATO base in Afghanistan had been struck by a large truck bomb, driven by a Taliban suicide bomber. Seventy-seven NATO soldiers, later confirmed to all have been American servicemembers, were wounded, though thankfully, none seriously. Several Afghans were killed (accounts differed between two and three).
Monday brought worse. A co-ordinated attack by terrorists, believed to be Taliban insurgents, struck across Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. The U.S. Embassy was targeted, as was NATO’s military headquarters. All American citizens in the capital city were urgently advised to “shelter in place” — take cover wherever they were, and stay put. A series of gun battles broke out across the city, and continued for hours. Afghan and allied aircraft conducted strafing runs against buildings captured by the Taliban, and there were reportedly random attacks against civilian targets throughout the city. The Telegraph, a British newspaper, live-blogged the day’s events. Even from afar, the chaos is evident.
That is not to say that the effort in Afghanistan has not had some merit. It has shown the Islamists of the world that, contrary to what they might have believed in the year 2000, the West will fight long, hard battles in the defense of its interests and democratic values. That is an intangible, but it is not without value. Western military forces have gained experience and new equipment that has finally moved them away from Cold War-era tactics and technologies, leaving them better prepared to fight the next war, wherever it comes. And it is likely the U.S. Special Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden would have been impossible were it not for the presence of a powerful American military machine in Afghanistan, just a short flight from the Pakistani city where the al-Qaeda mastermind had taken refuge.
But the question now facing the West, especially in a time of tremendous financial pressure in most Western capitals, is whether continued exertion will continue to yield further rewards. It is increasingly difficult to make that case. There is little reason to believe (indeed, there is evidence to the contrary) that a continued NATO military presence in Afghanistan has had a positive impact on the society.
Some Afghans have no doubt benefited from Western development aid or medical treatment, but there are few who doubt that Afghanistan’s traditional, sectarian culture won’t immediately reassert itself once Western military forces depart. In one telling example, approximately 1,500 English-speaking Afghans, who worked with the Canadian military as translators, were so fearful of what Afghanistan is and will remain that they applied for refugee status in Canada, hoping their work with that country’s military might get them to the front of the line — and for 550 of them, it worked. That these brave Afghans have so little faith in their country’s future should be a wake-up call to the West.
Since there is little, if any, hope of transforming Afghanistan into even a semi-functional Western-style democracy, and corruption and violence will remain the norm, the time is right to begin planning a Western withdrawal. The pullout need not be rushed, and perhaps not absolute. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer was right when he recently noted the strategic utility of the American military presence in Afghanistan, calling it “the base from which we have freedom of action to strike Jihad Central in Pakistan and the border regions.” But the American military can maintain some presence there, and continue to train the Afghan security forces in the hopes that they might keep a lid on the local Islamists, while conceding that any notion of nation-building is off the table and unworkable.
Proposing that concession may have political risks. The leader to announce that America was withdrawing from Afghanistan, or drawing down forces to a minimal level required to strike terrorist camps and train the local forces, would run the risk of being accused of overseeing defeat. And there may be outrage from humanitarian and international groups that would characterize such a step as conceding the future of Afghanistan’s women and children to the brutal rule of tribal warlords and Islamists. But the decision to withdraw would be the right one, because remaining will do nothing to prevent that same sad outcome.
Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaeda injured. The Afghan security forces are developing the ability to operate independently. It’s time for the West to start planning its exit.