Afghanistan’s political impasse has renewed calls that the U.S. revisit plans to pull its soldiers out of the country by the end of 2016. Look at Iraq, these critics say, arguing that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal that started in 2009 vaporized U.S. influence, opened the door to insurgents, and plunged Iraq into chaos.
There’s no denying that Afghanistan now teeters between civil war and its first peaceful political transition. Credible allegations of massive fraud have tainted the June election. An internationally supervised audit of the results is behind schedule and mired in controversy. President Hamid Karzai has threatened to leave office by Sept. 2, regardless of whether the audit is done.
Yet it’s simplistic to say that as went Iraq, so goes Afghanistan. Afghanistan doesn’t face the same Sunni and Shia Muslim fissure. Instead, power struggles have played out among seven ethnic groups; Pashtuns are a plurality, but each of the others constitute a majority in different regions. Afghanistan’s population is more dispersed; it doesn’t have oil to spark conflicts.
It isn’t clear that the number of U.S. boots on the ground translates into meaningful leverage or is necessarily conducive to an enduring, much less healthy, stability. That doesn’t mean the U.S. shouldn’t push the rivals for the presidency to compromise, and continue to provide economic support. A stable government that supports the aspirations of the Afghan people is more likely to advance U.S. interests.
The case for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan should rest not on their utility in midwifing democracy. It should be based on their effectiveness in preventing the reemergence of a direct threat to the U.S. and its allies. Critics of the pullout have seen that prospect in the Taliban onslaught during the summer fighting season. But Afghan security forces seem to be holding their own. If that changes, and if the Taliban show signs of devolving into international terrorists or of welcoming foreign fighters who are, then the U.S. and its allies may want to revisit their withdrawal timetable. Any decision to do so, however, should depend on the facts on the ground in Afghanistan, not in Iraq.