It has been nearly a decade since the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan was launched in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The main objective was to destroy Al Qaeda or, at the very least, prevent it from using Afghanistan as a base from which to launch further terrorist attacks. The mission was approved both by Congress and by the United Nations Security Council, and it enjoyed the overwhelming backing both of the American public and the international community.
The conventional phase of the war was over quickly, with American troops and their Afghan allies quickly overthrowing the Taliban regime, which had foolishly given Al Qaeda sanctuary, and driving Al Qaeda out of the country. But after having achieved our original objective, we have subsequently found ourselves mired in an endless guerrilla struggle with a resurgent Taliban, in which any sign of progress has been frustratingly elusive. Over 1,500 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan in the decade since, not to mention hundreds of British, Canadian, Dutch, French and other allied soldiers. Beyond the human cost, endless billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on military operations and nation-building activities, which has contributed to the fiscal crisis and which has achieved results which could charitably be described as questionable.
The remnants of Al Qaeda have long since left Afghanistan for safer grounds in Pakistan and Yemen. Indeed, a year ago, the CIA estimated that there were as few as fifty Al Qaeda operatives remaining in the whole of Afghanistan. Our battle against the Taliban has continued due to simple momentum; we were fighting the Taliban when we got to Afghanistan because they were protecting Al Qaeda, and we have kept fighting them after Al Qaeda left simply because we were already fighting them. But the Taliban has never been much concerned with the world outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, having only given Al Qaeda sanctuary because it offered them assistance against their Afghan enemies. In the grand scheme of things, the Taliban poses no real threat to the United States.
The only remotely plausible reason for continuing the war in Afghanistan was the oft-expressed concern that Al Qaeda would return to the country and set up a new base of operations if American forces were ever to leave. But Al Qaeda has effectively ceased to exist as an coherent organization, degenerating instead into a hodgepodge of quasi-independent groups, rather like a piece of broken glass.
Earlier this month, when Osama bin Laden was finally hunted down and killed, the last thin sliver of justification for continuing the war in Afghanistan vanished.
There are currently around 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, along with large contingents from allied nations. With Osama bin Laden killed and Al Qaeda long since driven from Afghanistan, what exactly is this huge army doing there? What is it trying to accomplish? How does its mission benefit the national security of the United States? Is whatever our forces are trying to accomplish worth the continuing loss in American and allied blood and treasure?
Asking these questions brings only one rational answer: there is no worthwhile purpose to continuing our military campaign in Afghanistan and our troops should be brought home as quickly as possible.
It is not America's responsibility to bring democracy and Enlightenment values to Afghanistan. Indeed, it cannot be and should not be. As President John Quincy Adams once famously said, America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." The problems of Afghanistan are to be resolved by the Afghans, and American intervention in the affairs of the country is almost certain to be counterproductive rather than beneficial.
Besides, if we are to engage in "nation building" in Afghanistan, we need to have an effective Afghan partner with which to do so. The Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai is certainly not such a partner, as it has become one of the most corrupt regimes on the planet. The elections of 2009 were dismissed by virtually every observer as massively fraudulent and blatantly undemocratic, and nepotism and bribery are endemic within every level of the Afghan government.
Attempting to foster a stable society in a country with such a government would be an exercise in futility, and it is not worth the trouble to try. Besides, history shows that efforts by Western nations to change the social fabric of non-Western nations usually end in disaster. The idea of the "White Man's Burden" has been discredit for quite awhile now. Commerce and cultural openness can bring new ideas to a society, but a society can never be forcibly changed from outside at the point of a gun.
More to the point, continuing the war in Afghanistan is precisely what our enemies want us to do. Despite the fantasies of some right-wingers, terrorism has never presented an existential threat to the United States. Instead, the most dangerous aspect of the terrorist threat is their ability to weaken our country through attrition. To Osama bin Laden, every American soldier killed and every American taxpayer dollar spent on the military operation in Afghanistan was a victory of sorts, and it was just such a strategy of attrition by which the Afghan mujahideen contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union during the 1980s.
Because Al Qaeda no longer exists in Afghanistan and the Taliban itself presents no real threat to us, it is difficult to see how the military campaign in the country does anything to improve the national security of the United States. Instead, we are losing American lives and wasting vast amounts of American treasure for no apparent reason. If the surviving leaders of Al Qaeda were to sit down together and craft an American policy best suited to their needs, they could hardly do better. The best policy to avoid falling into this trap is to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, just as we have wisely been withdrawing from Iraq. Ideally, within eighteen months, there would no longer be any American boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
A rational counterterrorism policy is one that combines effective intelligence gathering and law enforcement with targeted military operations by special forces units. It was this form of counterterrorism that lead to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. By contrast, a strategy of massive military deployments in Muslim nations plays directly into the hands of our enemies by creating the very environment they need to put an attrition strategy into effect, and does nothing to protect the United States from terrorist attacks. Indeed, by increasing Muslim anger against the United States, it seems clear that the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased, rather than decreased, the terrorist threat against our country.
It is time for us to pack things up in Afghanistan and bring our troops home.