by Benjamin L. Landis
A retired military officer and frequent contributor to this journal sounds off on why the United States should withdrawal militarily from Afghanistan. He cites four benefits to withdrawal.
Why is the United States engaged in massive ground warfare in Afghanistan in 2010? When it launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 its aims were (1) to find Osama Bin Laden and the other Al-Qaeda leaders and bring them to trial, (2) to destroy the Al Qaeda organization, and (3) to eliminate the Taliban regime and thus end the use of Afghan territory as a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. Only partial success was achieved. The Al-Qaeda leadership escaped. Its organization remained intact, although it did suffer a serious blow to its operational effectiveness. By mid December the Taliban government was overthrown and the Taliban were ejected into the frontier regions of Pakistan. Afghanistan was no longer a safe haven for international terrorists.
It is important to acknowledge that Afghan forces supported by U.S. airpower achieved these partial successes. In the north it was primarily the Northern Alliance, which seized Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, and Kabul. In the south it was primarily tribal forces led by Gul Agha Sherzai and Hamid Karzai, which seized Kandahar. Very quickly after the fall of Kabul local tribal forces liberated the western provinces along the Iranian border to include the city of Herat and in the east local forces seized Jalalabad. By December 7 there were no organized Taliban forces remaining in Afghanistan. United States airpower played an essential role in these successes, but the support by U.S. ground forces was negligible. American boots on the ground numbered less than 5,000 by December 7.
At this juncture the United States could have withdrawn its combat forces from Afghanistan, leaving the Northern Alliance and the other anti-Taliban forces to establish a government “made in Afghanistan by Afghans” with economic and humanitarian assistance from the United States and eventually from the United Nations. The United States was no longer in a position to pursue its other initial objectives without invading the Pakistani border territories where Al-Qaeda had found sanctuary. This, of course, was totally out of question. So, the war against Al-Qaeda would have to be conducted by other means.
The United States government decided that it would create a new justification for a continuing military effort in Afghanistan by adopting the mission of creating a new Afghan state. In this radical departure from its initial objectives the United Nations Security Council aided the United States. The Council called for an international conference to be held in December 2001 in Bonn, Germany. The purpose of the conference as announced in the agreement that was promulgated at the conference’s conclusion was to set in motion the process to establish a new democratic government in Afghanistan. The agreement created an Afghanistan Interim Authority to oversee the preparation of a constitution that would result in elections of a president and national assembly. The agreement also established an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with the mission of assisting in the security of Kabul and the surrounding area.
Why did the United States government modify its aims? The flush of easy victory, as so often in the past, transformed itself into overweening hubris. Darius marches to Marathon, Xerxes marches to Thermopylae, Napoleon marches to Moscow, Hitler marches to Stalingrad, and Macarthur marches to the Yalu.
The United States government obviously welcomed the Bonn Agreement, since it sanctioned internationally the United States administration’s decision to build a new Afghanistan. In essence, the United States government took over from the international community and from the Afghans themselves the responsibility of creating a “modern” Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the United States embroiled itself in Iraq and paid little heed to what was occurring during 8 years in Afghanistan. This lack of attention had three unfortunate results. First, it led to a failure to enunciate a clear policy for achieving America’s aims in Afghanistan. It was inevitable that the Taliban become resurgent. They were in a safe refuge where they could lick their wounds, reorganize, recruit, re-equip, and retrain without interference. And this they did. The United States, mired in Iraq, could not deploy the forces necessary to overcome the revitalized Taliban. Second, the oversight of the process of establishing a strong central government languished and the government that emerged was not strong, controlled very little Afghan territory, and became infamously corrupt. Third, as a compensating factor to lack of commitment in Afghanistan, the United States government exerted strong pressure to bring Pakistan into the combat against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and this has had a destabilizing effect on the government of Pakistan.
Today after almost 10 years of military presence in Afghanistan the United States has not achieved any of its initial objectives. It has not been able to bring Osama Bin Laden and the other Al-Qaeda leaders to justice. It has not been able to destroy the Al-Qaeda organization. And it is still fighting to prevent the Taliban from taking over the Afghan government. With regard to its expanded mission of creating a new Afghan state the question needs to be asked whether this mission is in the interests of the American people.
With respect to Al-Qaeda, the United States presence in Afghanistan is not essential to the effort to eliminate it. In fact, the massive United States military presence contributes virtually nothing to the war against Al-Qaeda. The Pakistan border territories are a safe haven for Al-Qaeda. The United States military effort is limited to occasional drone attacks against point targets identified by intelligence. The Pakistan government has little interest and virtually no capability to track down Osama Bin Laden in order to turn him over to the United States or to destroy the Al-Qaeda organization.
The United States government cannot reasonably justify its military presence in Afghanistan as necessary to fight Al-Qaeda. The fight against this terrorist organization cannot be won by using conventional military forces. It cannot be won by concentrating the efforts on Al-Qaeda in the Pakistan border territories. Pakistan is not the only safe haven for the Al-Qaeda organization and leadership. Yemen and Somalia are equally available and have a strong Al-Qaeda presence today.
The United States military efforts against the Taliban are currently not succeeding and will in all probability not succeed in the future. There are two fundamental and necessary conditions that must exist in order to succeed in a counter-insurgency war. One, the government backed by the counter-insurgency forces must have the support of the great majority of the population involved. Two, the insurgency cannot have a safe haven into which it can retire to recover, reorganize, recruit, and re-equip. In his interview by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on July 13 Ambassador Holbrooke came close to admitting the validity of this latter condition when he stated, “To succeed in a guerilla war of this sort, sanctuary is the greatest vulnerability.”
These two conditions do not exist in Afghanistan today. The establishment of these two conditions is outside the control of the United States and its military forces in Afghanistan. Yet the United States persists in expending exorbitant amounts of human, materiel, and financial resources to wage war against the Taliban. Ambassador Holbrooke in that interview with Rachel Maddow stated as the justification of this effort that the United States has “vital national security interests in these countries [Afghanistan and Pakistan].”
This is a gross exaggeration. If the United States were to withdraw all of its combat forces with their logistical support from Afghanistan in the immediate future American national security would not be diminished by one iota. As explained above, the Al-Qaeda situation is completely unrelated to the American military presence in Afghanistan. As a worst case scenario, if the United States were to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban were to regain control of the country with only provincial and tribal chiefs in scattered areas around the country still carrying on the fight, in other words, a return to the situation that existed before October 2001, the effect on American national security would be nil.
In truth, such a withdrawal would redound to the benefit of the United States, both nationally and internationally. The removal of the American military footprint from the Muslim world would create opportunities for a more flexible interaction with that world and a more receptive attitude by that world for American policies. One needs to remember the history of the world of Islam. Starting at the beginning of the 15th century a group of Western European nations began the conquest of the Muslim world. They were joined by Russia, later the Soviet Union, which, starting in the 18th century, gobbled up the predominantly Muslim regions along its southern periphery as it created its continental empire. With the parceling out of the defunct Ottoman Empire after the end of the First World War, the entire Muslim world was under the domination of these Western European Christian states either as colonies or protectorates or integrated into the newly formed Soviet Union. Except for Turkey and Iran and the relatively small Muslim minorities in countries with a predominant other religion. And in the case of Iran, the British and the Soviets invaded it in August 1941, and occupied it until May 1946.
For centuries the Muslim world endured invasion and domination. No longer masters on their own soil, the populations sought refuge and dignity in their religion and their culture, as they had existed before the Western onslaught. A fossilized culture and religion from the Middle Ages. Islam did not have the opportunity to experience either a Renaissance or a Reformation. Consequently, when after the Second World War the Western domination began to disappear or to be ejected, a medieval Muslim world encountered a 20th century world formed by its previous overlords. For a half century now the Islamic world has been trying to adjust its culture and its religion to this world by which it is surrounded and with which it must interact. This effort has torn the Islamic world apart spiritually, culturally, and politically.
Western military interventions only intensify the schisms that exist. These interventions harden the attitudes of those who wish to keep their culture and religions unchanged and even push a minority of them into terrorism. They also make it extremely difficult for those Muslims open to change, open to moving into the 21st century, to work for and adopt change without being accused of, and even feeling so themselves, kowtowing to the aggressors. Among these interventions suffocating the interaction of the globalized portion of the world and the Islamic world must be included the long-existing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is the principal cause for Muslim refusal to believe the “honorable” intentions of the West toward the Islamic world and is also the root cause of international terrorism. The withdrawal of the American military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan would do much to start creating a more favorable attitude among Muslims toward the political intentions of the United States. It would be a strong indicator that the American people recognize the right of the Afghan and Iraqi people to being masters on their own soil and to determine, however messily, their forms of government, culture, and religion. It would enable the United States to engage the Islamic world without generating the apprehension of being ready to dominate it by force of arms.
The second benefit to be derived by a withdrawal of United States armed forces from Afghanistan would be the enormous savings of the human and financial resources of the American people. The American government has a mandate imposed upon it by the Preamble to the Constitution to serve and act in the best interests of the American people. It has an obligation to ensure the safety, the liberty, the wellbeing, and the prosperity of the American society. The war in Afghanistan contributes nothing to the accomplishment of these mandates. In fact, it has a deleterious effect upon them, not only by wasting the finite resources of the American society, but also by diverting the government’s attention from actions to accomplish them.
The third benefit to be obtained by a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be the protection of the integrity and the capability of the ground combat services, namely, the Army and the Marine Corps. It is axiomatic that an army cannot maintain its quality of discipline, morale, and willingness to fight when it must endure continuous campaigning with no visible indications of success against the enemy. And this is a situation which is beginning to develop in Afghanistan. It is a situation that did develop in Vietnam and led to a significant deterioration in the quality of the United States Army. Without a continually renewing conscript pool, the American soldier and marine has after 3 to 4 one-year tours in either Iraq or Afghanistan endured more days of combat than the great majority of American soldiers and marines during the Second World War. That this is having a deleterious effect upon troop mental attitudes is already manifesting in the increase in post-traumatic stress, in the increase in divorces, in the increase in suicides. And under the current “nation-building” policies the number of combat tours for soldiers and marines will continue to increase. And at the same time these soldiers will not be seeing any sure signs of military victory, signs that their efforts, their casualties, their deaths are achieving any goal except unremitting combat.
The fourth benefit to be gained by a military withdrawal would be the opportunity for the government of Pakistan to erase the stigma of being a United States pawn. It would give the government of Pakistan more freedom of action and the opportunity to play the primary role in the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan and in its own border territories. At the same time, it would free the United States to work with all factions of Pakistani society without the stigma of intervening militarily in Pakistani-Afghan affairs. As a matter of fact, Pakistan is far more significant geopolitically than Afghanistan, especially in view of its nuclear capability and its relations with India. If Afghanistan were to fall again under the yoke of a Taliban government, the geopolitical effect would be nil, on the same level as would be a coup d’état in the Republic of the Congo.
It is imperative that the United States revise its policies and strategies with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The President has indicated that there will be a review on policy and strategy at the end of the year. This is too late. The President needs to take action in the immediate future to initiate the planning for the drawdown of the American military forces and the cessation of military operations in Afghanistan. He should direct the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense to develop a plan to this effect in close coordination with NATO/ISAF and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The objective of the planning should be to achieve a complete withdrawal of United States armed forces from Afghanistan not later than mid-2011, except possibly for a relatively small number of trainers and advisors and logistical support personnel. I assume that their respective countries would withdraw all other NATO forces on the same time schedule.
The President should also direct the Secretaries and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency to develop and put into operation plans to continue to attack Al-Qaeda and to embed Special Operations personnel in tribal forces, especially in northern Afghanistan, to serve as advisors and conduits for logistical support in the event the Taliban take over the government of the country.
In announcing his new policy he should make it clear that the United States will not permit Afghanistan to become again a safe harbor for terrorist organizations and that it will use all appropriate means, to include air strikes, to eliminate terrorist training areas, supply depots, and headquarters, wherever they may be located.
The present policy prescribing long-term massive military intervention in Afghanistan is not within the mandate that the Constitution places upon the United States government. Afghanistan poses no risk to the national security of the United States requiring this level of military intervention. The minor risk that may exist if the Taliban succeed in taking over the government of the country can be met by other less invasive, less costly means. The military intervention in Afghanistan has no effect on Al-Qaeda in its Pakistani refuge.
The military intervention in Afghanistan is diverting the attention of the government and the resources of the American society from fulfilling the true missions of the United States government: “…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Benjamin L. Landis retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after a 27-year career that included service with the Military Assistance Advisory Group at the U.S. embassy in Paris and as Senior U.S. Liaison Officer with the French Forces in Germany. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the French Army Ecole d’Etat-Major, and has an MSA from The George Washington University. After retirement, he was Director of Administration and Finance for several major law firms in Washington.