Getting out of Afghanistan

Lego terrorist
America’s enemy: a sophisticated view, grounded in the latest counterinsurgency theory. (Detail from title image of Andrew Exum’s blog Abu Muqawama.)

Why does the United States have soldiers, marines, airmen, and spies in Afghanistan?

Why have they been there for eight years?

Neither of these questions has a satisfactory answer. Americans often bypass them by insisting that, however we got there, we have no choice but to remain, at least for now.

Why do we have no choice? There are no satisfactory answers to that question either.1

There are other questions I’ve been asking since 2001. They go like this:

Imagine that the United States no longer had constitutional government, and evil, violent men took power.

  1. When would it become morally right for a foreign army to invade our country in order to liberate us?
  2. Would those Americans who resisted the invaders be “insurgents”?
  3. Would it be OK for our liberators to torture the American insurgents for information?
  4. In order to complete the liberation, how many American noncombatants would it be acceptable to kill? How many children?
  5. Explain the benefits of remote-controlled drone surveillance and attacks on American soil.

I won’t accept that these measures are justified only to those who have the power to carry them out.

Getting out

The Washington debate over Afghanistan policy has considered only two options:

  1. Send in more American troops.
  2. Instead of more troops, use more drone attacks and hit squads.

No other option was considered, especially not a withdrawal. In the salons of Washington, certain ideas are not comme il faut. An ill-defined “victory” is the only outcome open to discussion. It was once the same way concerning the Vietnam war.2

There have been no shortage of leftists, liberals, and independents calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan.3 Skeptics will reject these appeals as too reliant on anti-war ideology. They should have a harder time rejecting arguments that rest on pragmatism and historical evidence. Such as:

  • Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist of science and the military, briefly explained last fall why the war in Afghanistan can’t be won, and how to get out without replaying the fall of Saigon. His assessment of the troop surge — Vietnam all over again — is not optimistic.
  • Diplomat-historian William Polk discusses a total of four options, settling on “getting out” as the soundest. One of the few commentators who can tell a jirga from an ulu, Polk also deals realistically with the domestic political traps inherent in any policy. He knows that the merits of a foreign policy have little to do with how it will be received by the American public, much less by the neoconservative priesthood. But there are things the president can do to increase the odds of success. Above all, there are things we’ve been doing that we need to quit. It’s a good piece.

As surely as Robert McNamara lived to regret his past, the United States needs to withdraw from Afghanistan. It will be difficult, but no more so than remaining.


1 Readers who believe that the United States is a Christian nation at war with Islam need read no further. You have mistaken reality for a movie based loosely on the Bible, a book you do not read. Rather than having your war movie come to an end, you’d prefer that a million more hajis and ragheads lose their lives. I’m sorry for you. ↩
2 Gwynne Dyer suggested last month that Obama may be paying homage to Washington orthodoxy without believing it himself. Hope so. “A hint of hedging on Afghanistan,” Japan Times, 8 Dec 2009. 
3 See, for example, Ivan Eland, Todd Gitlin, Rita Lasar, George McGovern, and G. Pascal Zachary. On the right, George Will’s call for the U.S. to “stop now” (last fall) seems to have rested mainly on contempt for the Afghans. Anyway it earned him a predictable “retreat and defeat” scolding from the ever-reprehensible William Kristol

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