"Adios Afghanistan" at commentarymagazine.com


Adios Afghanistan

Abe Greenwald - 07.16.2008 - 9:56 AM

According to Barack Obama's own logic and criteria, it's high time the U.S. gets out of Afghanistan. On Tuesday, Obama said

This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century.

He was talking about the war in Iraq. But every item in his indictment could just as easily apply to the Afghanistan conflict.

Diminishes our security. May and June of this year saw more U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan than in Iraq. This past Sunday, nine American soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack in Kunar province. With American troops getting killed in increasing numbers and our enemy, the Taliban, finding surer footing and more solicitous regional allies, we are looking at the very definition of decreased American security.

Our standing in the world. When the planet's lone superpower swoops into a wretched country bringing 30,000 exquisitely trained troops and hundreds of billions in state-of-the-art weaponry, and can't defeat a band of mountain fighters after more than six years, people notice. In 2001, the U.S. went into Afghanistan promising to achieve what the British and the Soviet superpowers could not: victory over the ragtag warriors of the Hindu Kush. Both America's friends and enemies are keenly aware that the promise remains unfulfilled and they are calibrating accordingly.

Our military. With over 30,000 Americans sent, and thousands more on the way, Afghanistan is obviously making enormous demands on our armed forces.

Our economy. So far, we've sunk a staggering $200 billion into the war in Afghanistan with virtually no financial return in terms of industry, labor, or resources. This is to say nothing of the vast increase in humanitarian aid to that country since the war began.

The parallels above only follow from the most recent and readily available iteration of Obama's anti-Iraq argument. We can find much more extrapolative support for 'ending' the Afghanistan War if we consider a larger sample of Obama's Iraq talking points. Take this assertion from September 2007:

The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops.

If immediate withdrawal was the best way to inspire Iraqis to sort out their own bloody differences, does that not hold for Afghans' After all, we've been in Afghanistan longer than in Iraq and the question of civil war there is so academic it's not even questioned.

By staying on this long, are we not broadcasting our willingness to do the Afghans' hard work for them? Why have no benchmarks been drawn up to gauge Afghan progress and hasten our exit?

In July 2007, Obama said, the risk of increasing violence in Iraq "are even greater if we continue to occupy Iraq and serve as a magnet for not only terrorist activity but also irresponsible behavior by Iraqi factions." If he's worried about American presence as a 'terrorist magnet,' then he has yet another reason to want out of Afghanistan. On July 10, the New York Times reported that jihadists have recently been flocking to the tribal areas of Pakistan, "seeking to take up arms against the West,"  namely coalition forces in Afghanistan. Why not leave?

Of course, Barack Obama has referred to "the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could have pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11." But the people who 'committed 9/11' are, by all reputable accounts, not in Afghanistan. The surviving few are in Pakistan. And though Obama likes to conflate a troop increase in Afghanistan with a plan to take control of Pakistan's tribal region, the two are not the same. He simply has no plan for the latter.

Though one might argue that the U.S. has a humanitarian obligation to see the Afghans through to the other side of their struggle, Barack Obama feels differently about such things. In 2007, the AP reported

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn't a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.

The carnage in Afghanistan doesn't even qualify as genocide so it is certainly beyond America's military mandate to stay for the sake of subduing such a relatively small level of violence .

From the tactical to the strategic to the ethical, Barack Obama's own words on Iraq form a comprehensive argument for bringing the Afghanistan War to a close. However, because Obama was wrong about Iraq it would be wrong to apply his heuristic to Afghanistan. As time has proved, most of what he cited in his opposition to the Iraq War were time-sensitive challenges, not enduring obstacles. The rest of his objections represent a worrisome lack of ideology on matters of statecraft and ethics. We should, of course, stay in Afghanistan because the Taliban are our sworn enemy and because Afghans deserve a future free of tyranny.

While his mistaken judgment on Iraq makes a strong case for staying in Afghanistan, one question remains: Why does Obama himself seem so enthusiastic about continuing the fight against the Taliban?

Barack Obama has banked a good deal of his political fortune on the failure in Iraq. If Iraq is no longer a demonstrable failure, he hopes to still label it a distraction. To make that case, he needs to Afghanistan to be the great abandoned cause. But if his past pronouncements are anything to go by, it is a President Obama who will abandon the challenge of Afghanistan's liberation the first chance he gets.