Worth the fight?

Photographer: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Sticking It Out in Afghanistan. Please, Mr. Obama, Tell Us Why.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Why are we in Afghanistan, again?

President Obama says he knows. "We have clarity about what our mission is," he declared on Thursday as he announced that a few more U.S. troops would stay there a little longer than anticipated.

I hope that's true -- and that he shares his vision soon. Because the original point of invading the world's most unfortunate country was to depose the Taliban government and render al-Qaeda impotent to attack the West. Missions accomplished -- in 2002.

At this point Obama would do well to offer a comprehensive explanation of why he thinks the U.S. needs to continue the mission.

And there are good reasons. But when it comes to Afghanistan the head fights the heart. 

The argument to maintain or even increase the force relies largely on less tangible considerations: a debt to the people of Afghanistan after 14 years of warfare; hope that a U.S.-friendly, somewhat democratic Muslim state can have a beneficial effect on the region and the Islamic world; a loathing of the Taliban's desire to take the country back a millennium, turning women into property, destroying a rich cultural legacy and the educated class, imposing religious persecution and vindictive, bloodthirsty justice.

Making that case persuasively, though, requires an honest accounting of the strong arguments for a full withdrawal. Here are three of the most powerful ones.

The future of Afghanistan is not going to be decided on the battlefield. For years, we have believed that the Taliban's strategy has been to wait for the U.S. to leave before truly challenging the Kabul government. The harsh uptick in attacks in recent months shows that day of reckoning is approaching. Keeping a dwindling force makes American casualties more likely.

The Afghan military has proven hopeless at taking responsibility for national security, most recently running away from the fight for Kunduz. American success at training competent forces in places like Colombia and Somalia hasn't been transferable to Afghanistan. That's because the continued presence of American combat troops made Afghans think the U.S. would hang around to protect them. This is an argument for removing all Americans except those directly involved in training, and limiting them to the relative safety of military facilities.

Reconciliation talks are almost certain to fail. Whether the Afghan military is able to reach maturity or not, many feel the most promising course of action still would be encouraging negotiations between the Kabul government and Taliban leadership. The latter, in fact, sent out feelers this week about re-starting the talks that broke off after the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar was announced this summer.

While the hope for a peaceful resolution is an argument for keeping more U.S. troops present, as leverage to bring the Taliban to the table and force concessions, a rational approach dictates that this is wishful thinking. One of the few bright spots in Afghanistan has been the ability of President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah to put a contested election behind them and form a unity government with popular legitimacy. There is no way the Taliban, to whom democracy is anathema, can be integrated into this system, no matter how decentralized federal power becomes.

A more practical avenue is to pull out all U.S. forces and give the Taliban a de facto state in its southern heartland. It's a depressing prospect: dignifying Osama bin Laden's enablers and abandoning Afghans to rulers who hate polio vaccines, paved roads and modernity itself. But Afghanistan has historically functioned best as a loose confederation of tribes and city states, and as a way of forging an uneasy peace, dividing the state has more promise than fantasies of democratic compromise. If that's the endgame, why continue to risk U.S. and Afghan lives securing those provinces?  

Taliban control wouldn't create a cradle of terrorism. The U.S. doesn't even technically consider the Taliban to be a "terrorist group." Its alliance with bin Laden ended in disaster, and most of the Taliban's interactions with jihadist terrorists since being ousted from power after the attacks of September 11, 2001, have been with local groups such as the Haqqani network. Obviously, there would be no trusting the Taliban to keep a peace with Kabul, but it currently poses little threat to the West. In fact, its biggest foreign concern is Islamic State, a sworn enemy that is trying to make inroads in the Taliban homeland.

Now it's up to Obama to make a convincing case that those hard truths are outweighed by other considerations of U.S. interests. If he can't, it will be hard to avoid suspicion that slowing the drawdown of U.S. forces is meant to do little more than save presidential face -- delaying the collapse of Afghanistan until somebody else moves into the White House. It's hard not to be cynical.

Those of us who favor keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan and those who feel it is a waste of lives and money deserve the same thing: presidential clarity. Tell us what, exactly, we still hope to accomplish.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net