With bin Laden dead, why doesn’t the U.S. leave Afghanistan?
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq citing two justifications: to depose Saddam Hussein and to destroy Iraq’s banned weapons program. Within a year, Hussein and his accomplices were imprisoned, and it had been discovered there was no Iraqi banned weapons program. Having achieved its goals, why didn’t the United States leave? Seven years later, this question haunts the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, citing two justifications: to find Osama bin Laden, and break up al Qaeda. Bin Laden is now dead, and al Qaeda broken.
So why doesn’t the United States leave?
By autumn, American forces will have spent a full decade in Afghanistan — conducting patrols, bombing the heinous, bombing the innocent. The United States has roughly 100,000 soldiers and air crew in Afghanistan, almost as many as the peak force in Iraq. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan constrains the Taliban, and the Taliban are an awful group. But the Taliban are a central Asian problem afflicting Afghanistan and Pakistan — their existence does not in any way threaten the United States’ national interest.
Having fulfilled its goals in Afghanistan, why doesn’t the United States leave?
Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, writes in the Wall Street Journal that, “Since 9-11, al-Qaeda has never had more than a few dozen fighters inside Afghanistan at any given time.” Boot is a hardliner — he supports the Afghanistan war, and is author of the 2003 book Savage Wars of Peace, a spirited defense of superpower engagement in low-level conflicts. Boot also thinks there are terrorist groups other than al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
But with bin-Laden dead, how could “a few dozen fighters” and miscellaneous criminal bands justify keeping 100,000 American military personnel, plus 40,000 NATO military personal, in Afghanistan? Justify the continuing violation of Afghan sovereignty? The United States has never declared war on Afghanistan — we just attacked.
Most important, how can the United States justify continuing to kill civilians in Afghanistan? U.S. and NATO forces may not intend to kill Afghan civilians. To the dead, it’s all the same.
After the al Qaeda attack on the United States, the United States counterattack on Afghanistan could be rationalized as self defense. With bin Laden dead, that rationale fades away. To think that any country that harbors scattered bands of bad people should be invaded and methodically bombed by the United States is madness.
So with bin Laden gone — why don’t we leave Afghanistan?
When Barack Obama became president, the United States had about 70,000 soldiers and air crew in Afghanistan. Obama promised the Afghanistan “surge,” which raised the force level, would end in summer 2011. So even before bin Laden was killed, U.S. forces were expected to begin leaving Afghanistan around now. Instead, the White House and Defense Department are saying combat forces will remain in Afghanistan perhaps until 2014.
That would be 14 years of occupation — thousands of Americans dead, tens of thousands of Afghans dead — in order to accomplish what? In order to demonstrate U.S. muscle flexing, and to postpone the moment when Western forces leave Afghanistan in worse condition than they found it. With bin Laden dead, the time has come to end American military adventurism in Afghanistan — can U.S. forces on the ground there even describe what they are now fighting for? — and begin Afghan reconstruction.
Those “stealth helicopters.” Radar evasion — which is debatable for a helicopter — had little, if anything, to do with their use. Two Black Hawks with stealth features, trailed by two Chinooks, flew toward bin Laden’s compound. The Chinook, a 1960s design, has no stealthy features: on radar screens, it looks like a flying barn. So the presence of the Chinooks would have betrayed the stealth helicopters to radar operators.
The reason for the “stealth” helicopters is that they make less noise than standard rotary aircraft, aiding the element of surprise. No helicopter is quiet: the Pakistani press reported people in Abbottabad left their houses to see what all the helicopter noise was. “Stealth” helicopters are merely loud, rather than ear-splitting. Also the stealth Black Hawk has infrared shielding, in case Pakistani forces fired heat-seeking missiles, which didn’t happen.
Why didn’t the Pakistani military respond to a 40-minute raid near its capital? One reason is that the Pak military is not exactly a well-oiled machine: the Russian fleet approaching Tsushima Strait in 1905 is the right analogy. This is something to think about when pondering that Pakistan’s army must protect atomic bombs. Another reason is that Pakistan’s defense net points east, toward India. The raiders approached from the west, from Afghanistan.
It also may be that the United States was “spoofing” Pakistani radars and communications: causing the raiding helicopters to disappear electronically, without “jamming” (producing static and systems failures), which would announce something unusual was happening. Don’t be surprised if it turns out one or more U.S. electronic warfare aircrafts were in Pakistani airspace that night, spoofing Islamabad’s national security net. And don’t be surprised if it turns out that U.S. ground-attack aircraft, including this heavily armed plane, specialized to fire on advancing soldiers, were above Pakistan in case the raid went south.
Why wasn’t the V-22 used? The Pentagon has spent at least $30 billion on the V-22 tilt-rotor, which is newer and more advanced than the Black Hawk helicopter. The V-22 was designed for a mission profile like the bin Laden raid — fly a long distance through hostile airspace at twice the speed of a helicopter, land and take off like a helicopter, fly back at twice helicopter speed. Yet the V-22 wasn’t used. Though operational since 2007, the V-22 has never been employed near hostile forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This aircraft had a poor safety record in testing, and has been cited by Defense Secretary Robert Gates as an example of procurement waste. If it wasn’t right for the bin Laden raid, the V-22 will never be right. Either the lack of V-22 use was inter-service rivalry of the silliest kind (Navy SEALS staged the mission, the V-22 is operated by the Marines and the Air Force) or the V-22 is a very expensive dud that needs to be canceled before any more taxpayer money is wasted.
Photos, top to bottom: Farmer Jalaluddin, 70, carries harvested vegetables past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos reportedly killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5, 2011. Pakistan, in apparent reference to old rival India, said on Thursday any country that tried to raid its territory in the way U.S. forces did to kill Osama bin Laden would face consequences from its military. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro; Part of a damaged helicopter is seen lying near the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer