Plan B for Afghanistan: cut and run?

September 22, 2009

In Monday’s blog, I looked at McChrystal’s recommendation for a significantly stepped up effort to stabilize Afghanistan, and a major shift in strategy to win over the Afghan people.

But many people, including influential actors within the administration and several readers who left comments on Monday, are advocating a different approach: pull out, and leave Afghans to their own devices. This blog looks at Plan B.


“The Russians were in Afghanistan for 10 years. The Americans have been here for seven, and we will send them home in just three more years”.

That was how Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, described the movement’s message to the Afghan people when I met him in a drafty and bare Kabul room in March.

Zaeef, who was imprisoned for years in Bagram and Guantanamo, says he is no longer a member of the Taliban but is now acting as a mediator between its leadership and the Afghan government.

But his comments underline one of the West’s biggest problems in trying to regain the momentum in Afghanistan.

All the talk in the West is of an exit strategy, of when troops can start to be withdrawn.AFGHANISTAN

And what better time for President Barak Obama to announce a drawdown of U.S. forces than during the next presidential campaign in 2011/2012 — concidentally a decade after they first arrived in Afghanistan?

The Taliban have spotted the West’s indecision and are exploiting it, reminding wavering Afghan villagers that they, not American troops, are there for the long haul.

As U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in his stark assessment of the problem this week, there is a “crisis of confidence among Afghans”.

“Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents”.

That makes it all the more urgent for President Barack Obama to make some extremely tough decisions soon. What choice should he be making?

Some people are beginning to ponder the previously imponderable. Should the West cut its losses and run?

Perhaps we should admit that more troops will only make things worse, that nation-building in such distant and foreign terrain is impossible, that southern and eastern Afghanistan will forever remain a Taliban stronghold.

In this scenario, the West’s goals would be more limited.

Try to bring some members of the Taliban into the political process, and train the Afghan army to fight the remainder.

At the same time, the U.S. could pin al Qaeda’s leaders down with “precision” airstrikes and keep them on the run to stop them from planning major attacks on the West.

The strategy has its fans, and its attractions. But would it work?

Once the West leaves Afghanistan and gives up on the idea of nation building, there is no going back. The opportunity to create a more stable Afghanistan will essentially have gone.

Southern and eastern Afghanistan might start to look even more like Pakistan’s tribal areas. A weak central government would essentially have given up on the idea of controlling significant swathes of its own country.

Another problem, as the experience in Pakistan has proved, is that airstrikes are never “precision”. They kill civilians, and inflame anti-Western passions even further, steadily strengthening the hands of radicals.

They may have claimed the scalp of Baitullah Mehsud, but have yet to take out al Qaeda’s top leadership.

Remote bombing is tempting in the short term, but does it work as a long-term strategy.

And nation-building might be tough, but is the West really prepared to face the consequences of an ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the morale boost that would provide for al Qaeda and its allies?

For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic (U.S. Marines patrol in southern Afghanistan)


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The USA had a window of opportunity for success in Afganistan but that window closed long ago when the needed resources were squandered in Iraq to look for WMD’s. The failure of the USA to commit the necessary resources in the battle of Tora Bora and allowing Bin Ladin to escape to Pakistan was the devastating blunder complicating our objectives in Afganistan immeasurably. We now find ourselves backing corrupt warlords and fighting a growing robinhood insurgency.

Posted by Mihail David | Report as abusive

Plan B makes the most sense… next step would be to send all the Afghanistan populus in the USA that are not US citizens back home too! After that, do not allow anyone to travel there period!

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

I think I speak for a lot of people that would say that this war was a Republican construct. We have never known their true agenda, but we’re tired of dying for it. Now it’s in the Democrats hands. Cutting and Running is not what it should be called. It should be ” Returning to sanity”! Those that have never fought in a war, and never would – like Cheney, Bush, Rumey, have no idea what they started and should have nothing to say about how it is run. They have no idea what courage is because they have never been tested. There are reasons for fighting wars, and those we were given were, and are not good enough to die for.

Posted by Marcus | Report as abusive

only a coward would find another name for it…and pass it off as alright…just a republican war. It absolutely amazes me the morons living in this country who beleive you can have peace without strength. I remind you all…it only takes “one side” to beleive its a holy war. And in 2001, war was declared. Like it or not….war is here, until we finish them, or they own us! Simple terms, for the simple minds….

Posted by Kyle | Report as abusive

Marcus and Michael David reflect what my neighbors and I believe.

My grandsons survived Iraq and I do not want to put them at risk in Afghanistan for Cheneys ego.

Posted by Joseh | Report as abusive

What Marcus fails to mention is that the both sides of the House/Senate overwhelmingly approved of sending troops into Afghanistan. It was not a “Republican construct”. Only one member of the House voted against the resolutions; Afghanistan was the most bipartisan action taken in the past 8 years. Now that things have, and continue to, turn south, all those on the left want to denouce they ever supported it…look at the voting records.

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive

It’s time for all the John Waynes and Sergeant Yorks to give up their God-Country-And-Apple-Pie mentality and manifest destiny. America is not the savior of the world, it will not emerge as the leader of the New World Order, and it is not on a mission from God to make Americans out of everyone. Just who gave America the authority to invade sovereign nations like Iraq and Afghanistan? The 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, yet the U.S. did not invade that country.It’s time for America to learn to mind its own business and quit trying to make Americans out of people who don’t want to be Americans.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

If he president is not going to support the top geneal in the field, who wants more troops, we should pull our troops out immediately. If you are going to fight a war, you either fight to win or get out!

Posted by Henry Flynn | Report as abusive

This is another Vietnam. Bring the troop home ASAP. Let the Russia, the Iranian and the Pakistan deal with the Taliban.

Posted by Michael H. | Report as abusive

Research and educate yourself about the Bilderberg Group,and you will discover underlying strategies for having a Western presence in this area. Of course, greed is the generic factor. There is lots of money to be made by the industrial complex’s’war machine’.

What hubris! History teaches us nothing. What did Viet Nam get the average person, eh, except the mass murder of human beings on both sides.

You still think we are in a Democracy? Wake up guys and gals, we are managed by an Oligarchy! Bread and circus still prevail.

The junk you watch on TV and the mind numbing drivel which is blasted along the radio waves
short circuits those neurons in your brain so you don’t recognize how the big businesses/politicians are walking away with what is left of your life.

Let the Afghan people work it out for themselves. We, ‘the people’, that is, cannot afford, on many levels, to involve ourselves with this no win situation.

Posted by Gianna | Report as abusive

You know what…!

Pull the hell out of Iraq and Afganistan and let the local countries folks fight it out….do u see China fighting wars all over the world? The people of these countries will have to have enough courage to fight for themselves and revolt against these Religious factions.

Let’s fight the wars we can win and win quickly. Our boys are worth more than this sharade of cat and mouse.

I love my country and will fight for it, but dam’it no one has the balls to tell it like it is..It’s not who wins, but how the game is (was) played. We are playing the game wrong by having the military involved.

Our Patriots fought for a solid reason “freedom”, not religion and what we are up against are religious groups and Religion. The purpose of our presence was never established as helping build the infrastructure. You cannot do this with a military presence.

It would take 300 years and too many of our boys to convince these Religious fanatics that Democracy is the way to go..its not the answer., There is no separation of church and state like a Democracy in Iraq or Afgan, it’s their Religion or the highway…get it..?

If we do stay in some capacity lets to the Peace Corp or $$ to build the infrastructure., and stay out of their Religious affairs., with using the military. Its old school..!!


Posted by Concerned American | Report as abusive

I would rather fight the islamo facist in Afghanistan than on mainstreet. What Marcus and his ilk don’t seem to understand is that this is a war that we did not start but one we must finish for the sake of our children.

Posted by Tom | Report as abusive

I agree with everything here minus tom
We need to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq. I think the only reason Obama isnt doing it is because as soon as he does, some conservative will yell at him, if he stays, that same conservative will yell at him. No offense, but I would say 80 percent of republicans that are hating on Obama, deep down, they just dont like that hes black, not his policy.

Posted by Democrat4ever | Report as abusive

Give him a little time and he will support them and send more troops there. We cannot leave, run away with our tails between our legs and make it all meaning less and he know it. We need to stand and fight and be done with it. Its not a Republican war nor a democrat war its a war to protect those that cannot protect themselves and to protect us from those who would do then and us harm first chance they get. I say stay and fight till its done.

Don’t get me wrong I want nothing more than to be out of there right now because I have two grand children that are already planning on joining up, 1 within the next year and the other about 6 months later and that’s the last freaking place I want to see either of them go.

But go they will and fight for our country, fight for every last John Wayne, Sergeant York, Democrat, Republican, Black, White, all of us, even and especially for those who say its wrong! just like just like Their father and my father did, My fathers, father and uncles did.

Posted by Mike V | Report as abusive

Getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq is not only an idea being considered by Democrats. Ron Paul wisely told us during the 2008 presidential campaign that we should not be there. That we should not have significant numbers of troops anywhere. How long, for gosh sakes, how long must we protect Germany and Japan? Why are we still in Korea? Let’s bring our troops home and save lives and money.

Posted by travian dude | Report as abusive

It was obvious that the democrats in comparing the Iraqi war to the “just war”in Afghanistan,was all a campaign ruse,to attack the republicans.They did not estimate that because of this it would be dumped in their lap,as it has.Now it is their responsibility and they don,t know what to do,if they could just retreat like they did in v/nam but they are worried about the political fallout.If the terrorist take over and turn it back into a training camp it would come back to haunt them.So Obama is procrastinating again as the Iranians are ridiculing him by playing an active role training the taliban and supplying them with weapons.All this rocket cancellation stuff has just made look a weak president.

Posted by brian lee | Report as abusive

the biggest issue is to keep the afghani people occupied, have them focus on something else other than ‘look what the west has’. obviously thats easier said than done and seeing that there’s more tribal than national pride the situation isn’t the same as all over. ofcourse nothing unifies a people more than a foreign invader. and when it comes to the taliban better the devil you know, and they’re here to stay. the only way to get rid of them is by creating another force thats possibly more extreme than them.
saying that we are dealing with an agricultural society thats both fractured not only by geography but beliefs. the reason the taliban are effective is because they are like the roaming judicial councils of the middle ages, enforcing their will with the threats that ‘they’ll be back’, and the promise of a cause handed down by god to keep their numbers strong. the afghani people know that u.s. forces are only here temporarily and eventually they will leave, along with their protection. then the taliban will come out of their caves and start chopping hands off.
the taliban need to be villified, seen as an enemy and in this respect, an enemy of god. clerics need to come out and publicly comdemn their practices. other arab countries should offer support but only if the afghani people rise against the scourge of the taliban. if arab nations were to offer support say by providing infrastructure (maybe bin laden’s construction co. can help ๐Ÿ˜‰ then the point of view will no longer be ‘us against them’ but it will show that the taliban- they’re own people- are holding them back from a more stable society, where everyone benefits.
because unfortunately, as things degrade the only way to stop their own destruction is through the destruction of someone else. the taliban is already proving that.
we can’t impose democracy. because unfortunately islam is where christianity was during the middle ages. they have a religious evolution to get through and although we can expedite the process we’re still talking decades not years.

Posted by lukasz | Report as abusive

What too many people are too naive to understand about this is that if we lose Afghanistan to the taliban, we will soon lose NUCLEAR PAKISTAN to the taliban!!! This isn’t about some stupid pipeline! (though why turn down a perk or two?) This is about keeping tactical nukes out of the hands of radical hajjis!
Connect the dots, people! It’s not as simple as isolationism! This is the world stage, and pretending that distance has no effect here is stupidity at best, and maliciously dangerous at worst!

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

Maany say that solving these mid east problems requires solving the Palestine issue.
We kicked Iraq out of their occupation of Kuwait after mere months but Israel has been in the “occupied territory” for , what , 40 years?
They could be removed from there like we did the Iraqis from Kuwait, it might solve a lot of issues.

Posted by jean delarue | Report as abusive

You have no idea what you are dealing with, it is a separate reality. Much worse than Agent Orange.

Posted by Casper Lab | Report as abusive

Ever since American troops are in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq. For how many years had past and president had been elected. Promises that they will make something that they could benefit soldiers in the Middle East. No offense with the superiors this is what I’ve notice with what is happening now.

Posted by Boys Military Schools | Report as abusive

No more troops are needed in Afghanistan. If the U.S. would send Bob Dylan into all the caves with his guitar and harmonica I guarantee you Bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban would come running out screaming for the waterboard. Within 30 seconds of Dylan’s singing “You Belong to Me” there would be unconditional surrender.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

The question is why the successful strategy implemented in the early days of the war, one that focused on CIA and special forces acting in collaboration with Afghan tribesman, was, in large part, replaced by a brute force occupation strategy.

Given the effectively heterogeneous nature of the population, the difficulty of the terrain, and the historical precedent of the failed Soviet occupation, it seems clear that a traditional war in which NATO forces rely on large numbers of troops seems doomed to fail.

Furthermore, covert support of the opium trade by Russian interests, as payback for American interference during the Soviet occupation decades ago presents an additional challenge.

The most effective approach to the conflict would be to return to the original model. Remove all but a skeleton force – cease funding contractors, cease becoming involved in internal politics, and use conserved funds to aggressively bring all opium production under NATO control by purchasing all output directly from the growers. This would effectively cut off funding of extremists and allow NATO to gradually transition growers to boutique cash crops on a larger scale than done now. Additionally, a sizable portion of conserved funds could be channeled into a broad range of humanitarian initiatives including housing, education and communications infrastructure. Education and free flow of information is NATO’s best ally.

Posted by Thomas Pound | Report as abusive

After all the bravado and, lets face it, bs that we have said over the years in regard to Russia cutting their losses in afghan it would be hugely embarassing for us to do the same.

that being said, if we did then we should at least rebuild the country somewhat, unlike what is happening in Iraq where running water/electricty is only just about available.

as for the opium, the extremists are far from the ones benefiting financially from this…this much is obvious from the amount of drug lords/their lackies being liquidated – and not by US/NATO hands.

remote bombing are counter-productive/pointless, costs are relatively high and the amount of civilian casualties only add to the talibs numbers. something we clearly dont need.

Posted by Rob | Report as abusive

We need to understand the cultural, religious and economic differences between WEST (including Russia) and Afghanistan.
I think the best solution is to pull back ALL western forces and OUT SOURCE the job to International Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) under UN command. I would also add that the IPKF should be recruited from mostly Muslim countries or from countries with Good Muslim population, so the forces understand the traditions / religion of Afghan people.
West should monitor the progress and Fund re construction and humanitarian support.

Posted by Praveen | Report as abusive

Cut and run. Yeah, right. The House in Vegas similarly counts on the high probability that someone up $500 at the black jack table isn’t going to ‘cut and run.’ Instead, that $500 winner will likely stay and turn into a $4 grand loser that dreamt of getting up $10K.

The toppling of the Taliban gov’t back in late 2001 was as good as it gets for us and the Afghans, it was the up-$500 part.

The promised ‘war of necessity’ in Afghanistan has served Obama’s purpose, it perversely helped get him elected. Now that the ‘war of necessity’ is no longer politically rewarding, Obama will discard it for the same, previous Bush Afghanistan strategy which toppled the Taliban gov’t in late 2001. It could well have been such a contingency option in Obama’s plan all along.

Obama’s street-smart enough to know he’s riden the Afghan horse as far as it will take him and it’s ready for the glue factory for one last value squeeze. And Obama’s street-smarter yet to know that one day too long with the boots-on-the-ground ‘war of necessity’ will lead to Soros telling him not to run in 2012.

Posted by dom youngross | Report as abusive

It’s not a question of ‘cutting and running’, itโ€™s a question of quickly withdrawing like gentle-people from something that is very far removed from most realities known to the rest of the World, while negotiating optimum oil prices for the future. Shock and awe simply fuels more hatred.

Posted by Casper Lab | Report as abusive