Paul Pillar

An Arbitrary End Versus No End in Afghanistan

The United States has a hard time ending wars—at least any wars beyond the limited category of those whose size and shape appeal to Americans' appetite for clear-cut victories over evil-doers. The American involvement in the civil war in Afghanistan, at twelve and a half years and counting, is a prime case.

Our understanding of this war has not been helped by the repeated coupling of it in public discussion with the misadventure in Iraq. How the United States got into each of these wars was vastly different. One involved a manufactured and illegitimate rationale; the other was a legitimate and understandable response to a direct attack on the United States by a terrorist group that at the time was resident in Afghanistan and in alliance with the regime that ruled most of Afghanistan. The United States could have and should have concluded its mission in Afghanistan once it rousted the group and ousted the regime, which it did in the first few months of its involvement. The Afghanistan War came to resemble the Iraq War only after it became an endless involvement with insurgency and civil war, with an inability to identify an obvious off-ramp.

The United States does not have any significant or direct interest in nation-building in Afghanistan or in the internal social and political arrangements of that country. The Taliban, who became our opponent, have no interest in the United States except insofar as the United States interferes with the Taliban's ambitions for those social and political arrangements. Even the U.S. counterterrorist interest in Afghanistan is nothing like it was before al-Qaeda was pushed out of its once-comfortable home. There is nothing unique about Afghanistan as a potential origin of anti-U.S. terrorism, and anyone who has paid attention to the evolution of international terrorism over the past decade realizes that other lands are at least as likely, and probably more likely, to be points of origin in this regard as Afghanistan is. The United States, having affected events in Afghanistan for so long (actually going back to stoking the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s) may have some responsibility under the Pottery Barn rule to extract itself in an orderly rather than a precipitate manner.

President Obama's announcement of a drawing down of remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next two years, to what will be an ordinary embassy presence by the end of 2016, sounds like it involves an arbitrary deadline that will enable him to say when he leaves office that he got the United States out of its foreign wars. Of course it does. And we should not fret about that. If we can't find an obvious off-ramp, the end of a presidential term is as good a ramp to use as any other. Give Mr. Obama's successor more of a clean foreign policy slate, all the better to concentrate on other matters.

Unsurprisingly, this approach engenders strong criticism from the usual quarters. Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte (the last of whom appears to have replaced Joe Lieberman in a trio that never meets a war it doesn't like) quickly issued a statement that blasts what they call the president's “monumental mistake.” The three senators assert that the alternative to the president's decision “was not war without end.” Actually, it was. The senators say they want a “limited assistance mission to help the Afghan Security Forces preserve momentum on the battlefield and create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict.” They give us no idea what such conditions would look like or when they would arise. We may be forgiven in suspecting that the senators have no idea either—or that if they do, the sort of conditions that would permit the kind of negotiated end they would consider acceptable would never occur. It is fantasy to think that we could win a test of wills with the Taliban over who will persevere longer in determining the political make-up of their own home country. There is no reason to think that the next one, two, or twelve years will be any different in that regard from the last twelve.

Go ahead and criticize the president for setting an arbitrary deadline that is determined as much by his musing over his political legacy as it is by anything else. He no doubt expected plenty of such criticism. But no one has come up with any other ending for this war.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr.