How Many More Years in Afghanistan? For What?

In the past week, a number of retired or retiring military leaders have weighed in on the question of how much longer the United States should plan to remain in Afghanistan. Presumably, their assessments are prompted by the July 2011 date that President Obama has set to begin the withdrawal of combat forces there and their realization that nothing saubstantial is likely to have been accomplished by then. Putting aside for a moment the obvious questionof whether anything worthwhile can be accomplished regardless of how long we stay, these stern-looking, serious souls suggest that Americans should accustom themselves to the idea we will be in Afghanistan as long again as we already have been. Nine More Years? You have to be kidding!

But apparently they are not kidding, since, as best I can tell, none of them have a discernible sense of humor about anything, and certainly not this subject. Nine More Years? You have to have something funny in your drinking water to even consider such a proposal. Those who argue to keep plodding on like to portray themselves as the tough guy realistswho do not shrink away from tough decisions with tough consequences. But nine more years is not tough guy realism; it is Tinker Bell fantasy. Why?

For one thing, such an assessment assumes there is something WORTH such an investment for the United States, but they won’t tell us what it is. Al Qaeda? Have to prove they will be there if we leave and that keeping them out justifies the multi-billions/trillions we’ll spend keeping them out, and that is not only not easy, it’s impossible. A stable Afghanistan? There has never been one before, and aside from the ubiquitous Al Qaeda, why does the United States care one way or the other about Afghan domestic politics (especially when that caring is translated into treasure and blood). The defenses of American long term (to say nothing of short term) continued involvement in Afghanistan simply do not add up.

The only way to justify keeping the effort going is to ignore the geopolitical reality of the situation. Very simply, continuing this war is not, and never has been, a major geopolitical priority of the United States. There are no vital American interests engaged in the outcome. Certainly, it would be nice to Al Qaeda-proof the country, but Al Qaeda can be contained otherwise, and at a lot less expense than a major military adventure in Afghanistan that has absolutely no likelihood of succeeding. Saying that would probably not have been very popular at Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin’s rally in Washington yesterday, but it is nonetheless the truth.

In this vein, Foreign Affairs journal reached what I think was a new low in its just-released September/October 2010 issue, which contains yet one more baseless defense of the Afghanistan by the Army’s favorite suck-up, Michael O’Hanlon (“Staying Power”). Once an aparently rising star in the defense intellectual community, O’Hanlon has become the pro-Afghan War’s favorite lap dog, willing to defend without evidence any and all justifications for the continued (and endlessly continuing) involvement there. In summarizing the case for staying, O’Hanlon inadvertently makes the case for leaving. He argues, “a significant level of success–represented by an Afghan state that is able to control most of its territory and gradually improve the lives of its citizens” with “several more years of resolve” on our part. Control “most of its territory” and “gradually improve” people’s lives? That is an objective worth major American sacrifice? Foreign Affairs should be ashamed for publishing such drivel. Nine more years indeed!

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