25 Years After the Soviets Left, Seven Reasons Why We Should Stay

25 years ago, in February 1989, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. It’s not a happy anniversary for those wanting to see a stable and prosperous Afghanistan.
    This month the Taliban issued a statement equating America with the USSR.  The statement crowed, “Today America is facing the same fate as the former Soviets and trying to escape from our country.”
    To be sure, 1989 was not the worst of the experience for the Afghans. That agony started in the 1970s, when the king was deposed and Communist factions began feuding, followed shortly by Soviet intervention and the outright rebellion that killed up to 1.5 million Afghans and about 14,000 Soviets.  The civil war that followed the withdrawal killed tens of thousands more.
    It’s been a hard road since 2001 and looks to get even harder as the Taliban keep trying to take back what they lost.
    People in America wonder why we are still there. Why are 38,000 US soldiers and even more international troops trying to help the Afghans hold back the encroaching tide?  Why not throw in the towel on an intractable problem and just leave.  Here are seven reasons why that idea is wrong.
    For a start, we’ve spent over $500 billion and over 2,300 lives in pursuit of a stable Afghanistan. To leave would be to negate that investment in blood and money.
    The cost of making it come right is much less.  That would probably cost in the region of $4 billion a year for ten years as well as keeping about 10,000 soldiers, Marines and airmen there to provide training and support, which might cost another $5 billion in US direct costs per year.  At least most of those who remain would stay mostly on bases and keep pretty safe.  
      Another reason is, ironically, Pakistan. Pakistan is having its own trouble with a home-grown Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban is just as well organized as the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani government has lost thousands of men fighting them.
    Ironically, were we to pull out and the Taliban and other insurgents such as the Haqqani Network take over Afghanistan, then Pakistan would be next.  With insurgents using Afghanistan to mount attacks against Islamabad unmolested, Pakistan would be seriously destabilized, as happens with us now.
    (In Pakistan the situation is that the Afghan Taliban roam unmolested in the south. There is a line drawn on the map north of Quetta where the security forces will not arrest Afghan Taliban thus allowing them to operate relatively freely to overthrow Karzai.  North of that line the no-arrest agreement is off.  Amazingly, elements of the Pakistani security forces actively help equip and train the Afghan Taliban even as we pay the Pakistani security forces billions of dollars to help us!)
       An unstable Pakistan is bad for us because Pakistan has nuclear weapons. If it were to topple under pressure from the Pakistani Taliban, then nuclear weapons could easily pass to jihadists who hate America.  By the way, Pakistan has excellent air and sea links to the West.
    A third reason is that Al Qaeda this month announced it will try to reconstitute in Afghanistan if America pulls out in force. Right now American-flown drones are keeping its ability to congregate with new members at a minimum.
    Number four: the Afghans have done little wrong to warrant our abandoning them.  We asked them to build up a government on a model we helped design. They did so.  We asked them to build up a security force structure along the lines we helped design. They did so.
    The fact that we feel their government is corrupt or badly run, or that President Hamid Karzai is a difficult partner, or that the Afghan security forces are ill-equipped and have poor logistics, is our fault as well as theirs.  We helped design a lot of those problems.
    For instance, the police are corrupt in large measure because for years we insisted on paying patrolmen $60 a month, even though poor shopkeepers made $120 or more. Policemen couldn’t eat so they took money illegally from motorists, baking in corruption.  We knew the pay was too low because we had US Army advisors helping the police who passed it up the military chain of command.  But for years we did nothing about it, until we finally raised their pay seven years into the war.
    (The pay was kept low so professional like doctors would not be tempted to become policemen but would remain doctors, which are in short supply).
     Another reason not to pull out is that it would undermine the standing of America in the world and to make us unsafe.  Every jihadist from Chechnya to Somalia would decide that America had been kicked out with its tail between its legs.  Which would incite the mass of terrorists to ever greater efforts.  Like it or not, for now the world needs an organizing superpower.  Our allies need a strong friend, not one stymied by a backwater conflict.
    A sixth reason: Iraq turned democratic under our watch. Even if it is imperfect one, the ink-stained thumbs of voters were testament to the idea that a Muslim democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia can work.  The same can be said for Afghanistan, which has its own millions of ink-stained thumbs.  We can leave that as a legacy, imperfect as it is.  A win there for democracy is good for everyone; the Afghans, us and moderates from Algiers to Jakarta.  Or our legacy can resemble that of the Soviets; an unstable regime that limped along for another few years and died a violent death, dragging millions down with it into despotism.  
    Lastly, if we can’t afford $9 billion a year to work our will on the world we might as well hang it up as a superpower and become isolationist.  A superpower without the will to prevail is no superpower at all.  Winning will cost a few billion more but it is worth doing even if for the last reason alone.  


In Afghanistan, Talks and Peace Will Only Follow More Fighting

Word leaked this month that President Karzai has been trying to engage the Taliban in back-channel talks.  Karzai is desperate to end the war that has killed over 8,000 civilians in the past year alone, according to the UN.
But it is not likely Karzai’s ploy will work. It will just annoy his allies and disturb his friends.
For those who hope this raises a chance for peace, forget it.  There is a lot more fighting to come as America pulls out because the Taliban have little incentive to settle right now.
This is not the latest scheme to engage to Taliban in talks. That’s been happening for years.  For instance, the Taliban opened an office to hold talks in the United Arab Emirates in June 2013, but this closed a few weeks later after a series of mis-steps on all sides.
In late 2012 the Taliban met with Afghan government officials in France.  They even met with the two Afghan women included in the government’s delegation.  There, the Taliban said that they don’t need to have a monopoly on power in any government after Hamid Karzai leaves.
This web of talks and meetings suggests that the Taliban is softening, reforming and becoming more government-worthy.  It all raises the question whether peace might eventually break out.
But peace in the near term is unlikely for a few simple reasons.
One is the nature of the war.  If the Taliban really wanted to push out the Americans they would stop fighting tomorrow.  If the number of attacks dropped to zero the Americans, in this political climate, would have no reason not to leave immediately and completely, leaving no military advisors.
But the Taliban won’t do that because that’s not how insurgencies work.  Insurgencies are like trains.  They take a long time to start and a long time to stop. There are sub-commanders all up and down the food chain that have been encouraged to fight for years.  Turning them off again takes time.
Then again, insurgencies are like airplanes too.  If they stop moving, they stop flying.  It is death for an insurgency to quit fighting; fighters go home, get a job and they don’t want to come back.  To pause the fighting is to really end the fighting for good.  To take a one-year break to allow the US to leave is simply impossible for this reason.
So the Taliban face a basic choice: keep fighting or stop fighting forever.  They’ll keep fighting for that and other reasons too.
The Afghan army and police are pretty soon going to be lacking a lot of the things that make them stronger than the Taliban.  Fewer Americans on the ground means less air support and fire support and much worse logistics.  These were all propped up by the Americans.
The flow of replacement equipment will dwindle to a trickle; already when the Afghan Army’s unarmored Ford Ranger pickups get blown up it is tough to get them replaced.
A lot of this help is going away.  Already Congress cut the civilian aid by half in 2014.
The Afghan military needs a minimum of $4 billion a year to function, but this is in jeopardy with no guarantees it will continue at any level, for any specified amount of time.  Try being an Afghan commander planning a war while facing that problem!
(Which is too bad. The US absolutely should spend $4 billion a year after they leave because it costs a lot less to have Afghans fight than Americans. But that’s a story for another day).
So the Taliban have a huge incentive to push the security forces and see how hollow they become in 2104, 2015 and 2016.  Without enough guns and ammunition, maybe the government will fold.
Meanwhile, in the villages the Afghan civil government has failed to affect many people’s lives. This lowers the people’s support for the government.
Even though the economy is better and there is healthcare for some, and schools are open in many provinces, are there development projects?  Does the Afghan government, except in a minority of cases, provide needed services that keep the villagers talking to the district governments?  Services such as impartial judges, free healthcare, adequate roads and a few working wells to drink from?  Sure it does in some places but usually not often enough, or even not at all, especially in the restive south and east.
Besides, the Taliban are committed to their cause. They believe in this jihad as a calling.  Anyway, most Taliban commanders have no alternate day job.  Is a fighting mullah really going to hand in his AK-47 and start working as a property developer?  Not likely.
Put this all together and there will be no ceasefire until the Taliban really try to win, give it their best shot and fail.
Simply put, the Taliban, with their 30,000 fighters, have little incentive to stop fighting.  The Afghan government is going to get weaker, not stronger after the Americans leave, despite its 352,000-man security forces.  If the Taliban keep fighting they can test just how much weaker the government will get.  Maybe they’ll capture a province or two, or (less likely) the whole shebang.
It is nice to think that talks will work (despite their poor progress thus far).  That the Taliban will act honorably, and if the movement attains power it will not kill its political “allies”.  That the Taliban really mean it when they present a kinder and gentler side.  That they really want to compromise.
For me, I’ll pay more attention to peace talks in 2016, once the Taliban have tried to take over and failed.  That’s when the talking will probably bear some fruit, at last.

Without American Help, Will Afghanistan Be The Next Iraq?

This week, word came that the Obama Administration is moving ahead with contingency plans in case it doesn’t get a basing agreement in Afghanistan and has to pull out all US forces, leaving no residual trainers and advisors.
Sure, this is sensible. After all, it never hurts to plan, even for things that might not happen.
But unfortunately it’s not just prudent planning.  It’s also a signal that the Obama Administration is perfectly prepared to cut loose a country that has sucked up north of $500 billion and cost more than 2,300 American lives.  And that should concern us not just because of the waste, but because it can affect us down the line, too.
At issue?  A basing agreement.
An orderly drawdown requires a security agreement with the host country.  No agreement, no advisors.  Which is a problem.
Iraq was the last place the Obama Administration failed to get a basing agreement and pulled everyone out, leaving the host country without long-term military advisors. Three weeks ago al Qaeda-connected groups had largely taken over the main population centers of western Iraq, Fallujah and Ramadi, and they are still there.
The insurgents moved into Anbar Province and kicked out the Iraqi army, which was starved of expertise and advice.  The army has only managed to get back in by persuading the tribes in the area to support the government and help out, thereby replicating a deal the Americans made with the tribes back in 2006.
Having seen Anbar Province plenty of times, not only when was bad but also after it got better, I can firmly assert that it’s a lot easier to keep insurgents out than to dislodge them once they get in.
The Iraqi army was starved of advice and support because we didn’t have the 10,000 or so US trainers there that would have made a world of difference. Instead we now have a gigantic but mostly empty embassy in downtown Baghdad, which cost a little shy of a billion dollars.
So now we are faced with the same dilemma in Afghanistan.  Without a basing agreement, no US advisors will stay.
It should theoretically be reasonably straightforward to get a basing agreement.  That’s because ultimately the agreement boils down to a single provision:  America won’t let its soldiers, if they happen to kill someone in the line of duty, be put on trial by the host country.  We’ll try them at home, but they won’t rot in some jail cell in Baghdad or Kabul.
This system is in place now and it works. A number of US service members are now in US prisons for violating the rules of war in Iraq or Afghanistan, after having trials here at home.  (These agreements have other provisions, but this is the one that really matters to America).
So if that’s what it comes down to, why can’t we get the deal done?  Just get the agreement signed and keep the advisors there to make sure we don’t get a Taliban repeat of the Iraq problem.
Unfortunately the administration is making heavy weather of this task.  Certainly the local leaders are frustrating to work with.  President Hamid Karzai, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki before him, repeatedly change their minds and demand extra provisions at the last minute. (For instance, Karzai recently responded to civilian casualties in Parwan Province allegedly caused by US Special Forces by requiring that any agreement ban S.F. from entering Afghan homes, something the US military finds onerous).
But these extras are all negotiable to a large extent. Any US official intent on doing a deal would find a way to do it. For instance, I would suggest that an extra $500 million pledged to rebuild villages would shift the thinking of a lot of Karzai’s advisors’ on the “problem” of the basing agreement.  And Karzai listens to his advisors.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration spends as much time harping on the way Karzai changes his terms and conditions as it does trying to work with him to find a solution.  Instead of inspired diplomacy, we see the Obama Administration stubbornly sticking to its guns, accusing Karzai of dealing in bad faith and then turning toward Plan B – leaving no US soldiers in country to advise the insufficiently-equipped Afghan National Army.
The Iraqi army is years ahead of the Afghans and al Qaeda still came back when American help was lacking. Imagine what will happen in Afghanistan without it.  It won’t take six years, either.
A major issue, I suspect is that the Obama administration is not taking the problem as seriously as it should.  President Obama wants to get out of Afghanistan as he did Iraq.  To him the worst case scenario – no US troops left to help the local security forces – is still a win, because we will have left.  Campaign promise fulfilled.
Also, he doesn’t consider the threat of insurgents to be very significant for America.  Tellingly, Obama’s response to al Qaeda-affiliated groups taking back western Iraq was quoted in the New Yorker magazine thus:
“‘The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,’ Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy.”  He also added the groups were a symptom of sectarian strife in Iraq, rather than the kind of threat we faced from al Qaeda before.
But the reality on the ground is different and much more grave.
Western Iraq in insurgent hands destabilizes the entire country and Syria too.  And allowing Afghanistan to fall into insurgent hands puts us back to square one, 2001.
The Obama Administration has been slow to realize that failing to get a basing agreement isn’t just an Afghan problem.  And it’s not just a mark on our scorecard of wins and losses in war, either.
Getting this wrong could easily affect all of us, yet again.