Plan B for Afghanistan: cut and run?
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.
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?
Photo credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic (U.S. Marines patrol in southern Afghanistan)