“We can’t lose focus” after Bin Laden’s death, said the former Secretary of State, the woman who helped author the most costly loss of focus in the history of America’s fight against terrorism. Of course, Condi Rice had no earthly idea when she spouted her “mushroom cloud” warning years ago that Saddam Hussein had long given up his nuclear program, that his supposed link with Al Qaeda was a fabrication. But facts didn’t matter as much back in 2002, when fear-mongering was a powerful tool against a fearful America. Afghanistan was “pacified” but Bin Laden had slipped away at Tora Bora. America needed a new target. Preferably a nation-state that would showcase America’s superior conventional military strength. Something that had borders and didn’t move, like those pesky, shadowy jihadists who were the ones we were really after. And so, Iraq became the Bush administration’s Weapon of Mass Distraction from the real objectives of the “War on Terror”: killing and capturing terrorists. A trillion dollars and 5,000 American lives later, Condi Rice goes on ABC News to warn that we can’t lose focus.
Too late. Al Qaeda hasn’t been in Afghanistan in sufficient numbers in years. It’s common knowledge that the organization metastasized long ago into more potent franchises in Iraq, Yemen and North Africa. Even the top leadership of the Taliban are not in Afghanistan. The Quetta Shura and Mullah Omar- much like Osama Bin Laden until he was taken out unilaterally- operate under the protection of their government patrons, in Pakistan. Well then, you ask, why does the West still have 140,000 troops in Afghanistan propping up a Karzai government that is reviled by its own people at a time when corrupt strong men across the Muslim world are being toppled by popular revolutions? Hmmmm. Because we’ve already thrown so much blood and treasure at our Afghan investment already? Because if we withdraw now, the world will think we are weak and unable to finish the job? Because we don’t want Afghanistan to become a staging ground for terrorist attacks on our country again?
These questions and their very structure are more illuminating than the answers could ever be. The subject is always “us”, the object, “Afghanistan”, when it should be the other way around if we are looking for viable solutions for, namely, Afghanistan. Long ago, Afghanistan ceased being about Afghanistan and became more about America and our selfish insecurities as a nation. The longest war in our nation’s history remains unfocused, unsustainable, and detrimental to our nation’s standing and security in ways that are only now becoming visible. Only recently, American soldiers have admitted to forming kill teams that have murdered Afghan civilians, claiming body parts as take-home trophies. It’s tough to reconcile a COIN strategy which emphasizes winning local hearts and minds with testosterone-laden kids who just wanna “get some”, taking matters into their own hands when they can’t do what they were trained to do. Military and civilian agencies continue to coordinate poorly in an increasingly violent Afghan reconstruction environment and have entirely different plans and priorities for resources. Mass prison breaks and friendly fire attacks on NATO personnel occur with growing frequency. The annual cost of the Afghan security forces we are training and equipping dwarfs the entire Afghan national budget. What part of this is about building a nation that can sustain itself?
All this at a time when the arc of fundamental change in the Muslim world is shifting decisively West, towards the Arab heartland where Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology was born. This is where the fight against Islamic fundamentalism will be won, in the rejuvenated streets of Cairo, Tunis and Damascus. Unfortunately, that struggle for the most part is not kinetic warfare but the hard slog of compromise and negotiation between civil societies and political parties. Therefore, America isn’t interested. What’s profitable about civic development? What congressional district will it create jobs for? What Pentagon weapon system will it support? Mercy Corps doesn’t make campaign contributions.
So what’s holding us back, in the wake of the death of Al Qaeda’s inspiration, from naturally pivoting away from a costly and unwinnable quagmire towards a more subtle, nonviolent engagement that would cost less and more directly target the seeds of extremism? Steve Coll is certainly right when he says many policy makers believe that Pakistan, and by extension Afghanistan, is too big to fail. In their eyes, one country is Bank of America and the other is Citicorp. There’s cross shareholdings, so if one goes down the risk is the other might as well. And then what happens? Loose nukes? Another Indo-Pak war? A Pashtun confederation straddling both countries and declaring itself an Islamic Emirate? Mass refugees and ethnic conflict? An expanding Chinese sphere of influence in the Sub-Continent?
Yes, perhaps all of these things. Certainly some of them. This is exactly the “bail out” argument that Afghan and Pakistani governments have made to countless Western leaders and institutions over the years to justify the billions in aid and debt they’ve been granted since their creation as nations. Support us or anarchy will reign. Has our support improved governance or rule of law in these countries? Have their citizens been given more opportunities to educate themselves, start a business, or receive adequate medical care? What is the incentive for any of their leaders to provide these things when the far more lucrative argument is perpetuating the doomsday scenario that the West continues to fall for? Where is the end game here?
At some point, nations, like companies, need to fail so they can one day rise again. We shouldn’t be afraid to let these two countries find their own way instead of propping them up artificially. Bring the troops home and save a $100 billion a year. Refocus a fraction of that money saved towards the Arab heartland, with increased civilian aid to liberal democratic forces that are the best long-term hope against Islamic extremism. It’s not a difficult decision. We just have to focus.