Colin has repeatedly suggested that the United States should abandon Afghanistan. He believes that the costs of occupying Afghanistan are greater than the potential benefits. He does not, however, identify potential costs and he seems to suggest that stability is not a worthy goal. Indeed, he has questioned whether instability is a bona fide threat to US national security.
Let me begin by noting that I do not agree with every aspect of the United States strategy in Afghanistan. As I have noted in previous posts, there are facets of US strategy that need great reform, particularly the US approach to poppy growth and opium production. I am also in agreement with Colin in so far as I question whether that is an achievable goal. Colin and I – so far as I can tell – diverge on the question of what US goals ought to be and whether those goals are achievable. As I have written previously, I do not believe that western style democracy is in the offing in Afghanistan but I do believe that stability there is achievable and that it is worthwhile goal for the United States from a national security perspective.
States are best able to deal with other states. It is unsurprising that after several hundred years of a state-centric international (or at least, western international order), states are predisposed to develop and effectuate policies with a view towards other states. The international system is likewise designed to account for interactions between and among states. This system provides a convenient hierarchy for decision making – it is a heuristic that allows decision makers to contextualize events and place them in appropriate bins: international organization, state or individual; interstate or intrastate.
Stability within and among states is thus convenient and, to some extent, necessary for states to craft responses. But stability for its own sake is not a sufficient reason for the United States to be involved in Afghanistan. Indeed, creating instability has, at times, been a useful tool for the United States and an appropriate goal for the United States. For example, the United States fueled the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan because creating a quagmire in Afghanistan for the Soviet army allowed the United States to inflict non-trivial damage on the Soviet Union for little cost. Instability there, and at that time, was an appropriate goal.
However, persistent instability, once a policy goal has been achieved – in the case of Afghanistan, depleting Soviet resources, driving the Red Army out of Afghanistan, and contributing to the collapse of the U.S.S.R – serves no positive foreign policy objective and can become a source of insecurity.
Afghanistan is frequently depicted as having been chaos under the Taliban. That was not in fact the case. While the Taliban were a backwards and despicable regime, they did provide some semblance of order. There writ was weak and the extent of their control territorial speaking was limited. Within this limited control, Al Qaeda was able to carve out what amounted to a fiefdom in Afghanistan – an area of the country, nominally under Taliban control, run by Al Qaeda. Within that space, Al Qaeda was able to conduct its operations, culminating with the September 11, 2001 attacks.
So, non-state threats to the United States are not necessarily born from chaos. But a weak state allows non-state threats to operate with impunity. When those non-state threats are given access to infrastructure that facilitates a global reach – airports, say – through porous borders, then the ability of that non-state organization to act with impunity within a putative state is a threat to the national security of the United States.
Additionally, a weak state affording the non-state actor safe haven (potentially unknowingly or unwillingly) presents the United States with a policy dilemma. How does the United States address the non-state threat? Traditionally, the United States could demand the state to turn over member of the non-state organization, or demand that the state cease facilitating the non-state organization under threat of some sort of state-driven reprisal. But this presumes that the state is sufficiently cohesive to comply with US wishes, or sufficiently cohesive for the United States’ state-driven reprisals to have effect. The United States might pressure the non-state actor directly and by-pass the putative state. Or, the United States might attack both the sheltering state and the non-state actor simultaneously – as it did in Afghanistan in 2001.
This is not to say, however, that instability does not present a threat to the United States as well. First, it would be hard to imagine a state that is sufficiently chaotic in which a cohesive non-state actor would not be able to setup a fiefdom like Al Qaeda managed to do in Afghanistan before 2001. Even in Somalia, the preeminent example of a collapsed state in chaos, features areas of either incredible stability (Somalialand) or areas that have been pacified by a non-state actor to facilitate the non-state actor’s goal (see Islamic Courts Union). Second, the net effect of one state’s instability on US national security must be examined on a case-by-case basis: Has there been spillover? If so, what are the consequences of the spill-over? How do those consequences impact US national security? This is not a linear system and its effects may not be immediately nor readily identifiable.
In Afghanistan, spill-over has been obvious. The Pashtu-based insurgency that rose up in the wake of the US invasion in 2001 has traditional cross-border links. The porous nature of the Afghan-Pakistan border and the relatively weak control Pakistan exerts over its border areas provided the Pashtu insurgency with safe haven – another, though slightly removed, example of instability threatening US national security. This, in turn, has fueled a Pashtu-based insurgency in Pakistan, attacking the state. Disruption of Pakistan is a threat to the national security of the United States – that is self-evident.
At this point, while the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies have separate goals, they clearly contribute to each other. It is highly unlikely that in leaving Afghanistan, the insurgency in Pakistan will burn-out. Leaving Afghanistan, however, will remove whatever ability the United States has had to prevent the Pakistani Pashtu insurgency from using Afghanistan as a safe haven in its war against the Pakistani state. That the Afghan state is currently too weak to provide a similar role is apparent, and the likelihood that an abandoned Afghanistan would give the Pakistani Pashtu insurgency strategic depth militates against the United States leaving. Further, there is little reason to believe that, should the United States abandon Afghanistan, that Al Qaeda or some other non-state actor would not be able to carve out yet another fiefdom where it could enjoy operational freedom, engendering an additional threat to the United States.
Building a stable Afghan state with a government able to exercise its writ sufficiently to prevent the development of a new non-state fiefdom is no easy trick. That said, abandoning the Afghan project is the only way to guarantee failure with regard to that strategic objective. Yes, leaving would stem American expense of blood and treasure in the short-term. It is likely that in the medium and long term, however, quitting Afghanistan at this stage, will only cost the United States greater expenditures of both. Failure of long-term policy thinking and engagement during and following the last Afghan war contributed directly to the attacks of September 11, 2001. These failures are hallmarks of US foreign policy making in the post-War era. But making the same mistake, in the same place, twice is not just bad policy, it’s criminal. Simply abandoning Afghanistan would be just that.
UPDATE: Ahmed Rashid writes in today's Washington Post:
Many dissenters in Washington, such as columnist George Will, insist that the Afghans are incapable of learning and unwilling to build a modern state. Others, including former British diplomat Rory Stewart, argue that Afghan society should be left alone. But the dissenters do not sufficiently acknowledge the past failures of the Bush administration that led us to this impasse. What's worse, they offer no solutions.