Sometimes a problem has no real solution. Sometimes the only option is to accept that
plainly and emphatically, as in Afghanistan, the best outcome is the absence of
a worse one.
With few if any exceptions our International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF) allies don’t seem to understand this fact, and
some of them are losing patience with what they regard as an endless war. There was a sense a few years ago that we
were winning, and with that, some possibility of bringing the boys home. But the fight has become nastier; our allies
are taking increasing casualties; and now there are rumblings of discontent
that suggest the possibility of complete withdrawal or, at least, a retreat
from the bloody work of actually fighting.
That would be an unmitigated disaster for the West. As 2008 winds down, we need to fix in our
minds the simple fact that military involvement in Afghanistan may well be
something close to a permanent fact of life.
That is the unfortunate price we must pay to maintain the safety of the
West and to fulfill an obligation to the Afghan people, having invaded their
country to remove the Taliban..
Much in the same way that domestic crime will never
be completely eliminated, there may always be a need for an international
military force in Afghanistan to suppress those who would instigate or practice
terrorism. Tragically, there will be a
steady, depressing drizzle of casualties among the forces of order and decency –
as there is in the most crime-ridden of our cities or among the military or
police forces – indeed, the militarized police forces – in places like Colombia
or the Philippines.
It’s tempting to believe that if foreign troops pull
out the fighting will stop and that there will be peace. And there will be peace: for a day, a month, a
year, but then what? The Taliban know
they need to hold out only long enough to exhaust the political will of the
Already the Netherlands, Canada and Britain are
beginning to question their missions and hint at either withdrawal or
accommodation even with the more recalcitrant among the Taliban. According to a Guardian/ICM poll in October
2001, 74% of the British people supported their nation’s military action
against the Taliban; this month a BBC/ICM poll revealed that 68% want Britain
to withdraw within 12 months.
Only the United States remains (relatively) patient,
as we have a special interest in the land that harbored the masterminds of
9/11. But it’s time to face the unhappy
reality and say simply and clearly: “No, we are not winning in
Afghanistan.” But absent a massive
commitment in blood and treasure of a kind the West is reluctant to make,
controlling a low-level insurgency may be our best alternative.
On its own Afghanistan will always remain a threat. With a hard and largely barren place yielding
an atavism that does not place a high premium on the attitudes and habits of
mind necessary for democracy, modernity and economic success, the appeal of
radical Islam will always remains strong; and with few natural resources, opium
will offer an easy way for people to earn a living and support the age-old criminal
gangs that now intermingle with, and take shelter behind, radical Islam.
Afghanistan supplies approximately 90 percent of the
illicit global opiates market. Poppies
cannot be entirely rooted out, and eradication efforts will only drive up the
price of a product for which the demand among addicts is largely
inelastic. Afghanistan is larger than
California and Florida combined, making policing difficult, and even if the
West attempted to buy up the entire crop, some farmers in the vast countryside
would illicitly produce opium at now-premium prices and require the paid
protection of the Taliban or Taliban-like forces.
There is also the desire of regional players to keep
the pot boiling, as well as Great Powers who enjoy watching the U.S. struggle
and expend its political and material capital.
Add to that Afghanistan’s permeable borders, especially with the tribal
areas of northwest Pakistan that act as a haven for terrorists, and we have
something close to an insoluble problem.
“Insoluble” is a troublesome word to Americans. More than most, we have a tendency to flee
ambiguity, to see things in black and white, and to seek clear solutions. But as much as any place on earth right now
Afghanistan is ground zero of moral, political and military uncertainty.
Our only option is for ISAF to maintain a military
presence for what will likely be an indefinite period while training Afghan
forces in the hope that – with support from the majority of Afghans who abhor
the Taliban – they can eventually confront any insurgency on their own.
Even if our NATO and other allies abandon us and the
Afghan people, we must stay in Afghanistan as the best of only bad
alternatives. In the battle against
Islamofascism, we have to put at risk our national purse and, most importantly,
the lives of some of our best young people.
That is the price of winning this long twilight