Children tiptoe around heat and fire once they’ve burnt themselves for the first time. Governments apparently don’t. In fact, they develop a masochistic urge for more pain.
More than 20 years ago the United States abandoned Afghanistan for the first time after the mujahedeen forced Soviet forces to withdraw from the country. Afghanistan was left to pick up the pieces. In a country that lacked a stable government, law and order needed to be stored and reconstruction of its society and economy shattered by ten years of war was a priority. That proved too tall an order for the broken nation.
The US let it happen, failing to work with its allies to ensure that fighters were offered a way to reintegrate into society. Afghanistan descended into chaos only to emerge as a state that almost made Saudi Arabia look liberal.
There was a lesson to be learnt. Military solutions without the complimentary political, economic and social measures needed for reconstruction and nation-building backfire.
Ten years later that lesson has yet to sink in.
In his speech, Mr. Obama laid out a staggered withdrawal plan for Afghanistan that repeats what his predecessors did. The plan serves the short term interests of the United States and of Mr. Obama as he looks to be re-elected next year, but ignores what it would take to ensure true stability and security in Afghanistan itself.
Afghanistan is in many ways a failing if not a failed state. President Hamid Karzai, elected in elections that can hardly be called free and fair, presides over an unpopular, incompetent, corrupt administration, whose writ extends to at best parts of the country and whose military is untested. The Taliban are certain to rise again. History could easily repeat itself.
Yet, Mr. Obama’s focus is withdrawal staggered over several years until December 2014 when the United States will leave behind only a small force to conduct counterterrorism operations and train the Afghan national army.
As far as Mr. Obama is concerned the United States has accomplished what it set out to do a decade ago when it invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is dead, killed last month in a US Navy Seal attack on his hideout in neighboring Pakistan.
The group’s leadership has been decimated; its remnants are on the run. Al Qaeda has been unable to launch a successful attack against the United States since 9/11.
Afghanistan however is paying the price for the US success and many Afghans fear renewed civil war once the United States withdraws. That is a price that could come to haunt the US.
To be sure, there are good reasons for the United States to look beyond Afghanistan and some things have improved in the country. At a time of an at best fragile economic recovery, the Afghan war is costing the United States an arm and a leg at about $120 billion a year. Nation building at home is certainly more important than nation building elsewhere.
Moreover, public support for the war has waned since Americans sought justice for the 9/11 attacks and in many ways feel that justice was served with last month’s killing of Mr. Bin Laden. The US military is looking for a face-saving way to exit.
For those inside the Obama administration and beyond who feel that the United States needs to focus its attention and resources in international relations on Asia at a time of global power shifting from West to East Afghanistan like Libya and Iraq has become an unwelcome distraction. The need to focus attention on Asia is certainly justified but the history of the Middle East teaches that the strategically key region does not like to be relegated to the sidelines and usually ensures with a vengeance that it gets the attention it thinks it deserves.
That knowledge coupled with the fact that a fractured and still broken Afghanistan bordering on a Pakistan that is struggling with its own demons hardly seems a formula that promises a return on the US investment that goes beyond revenge. It certainly does not inspire confidence that the threats emanating from Afghanistan that sparked the US invasion in the first place have been squashed once and for all.
As a result, the price of Mr. Obama pursuing narrow short-term US and personal political interests rather than investing the time, energy and money in truly helping Afghanistan back on its feet could ultimately prove politically and financially more costly than the benefits of cutting losses now.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)