Knowing When to Stop, or Learning How to Win?
A guest blog by Michael Brandon McClellan
[Mike McClellan is a graduate of Yale and Georgetown Law and a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. His articles on politics and foreign policy have appeared in the WSJ, the Weekly Standard and on TCS Daily. It’s our pleasure to welcome him as a contributor.]
A few months ago I sat in awe in a Santa Monica hotel ballroom. George Will had been speaking for an hour and still held the audience spellbound. In a relaxed conversational tone, he addressed a dozen subjects, deploying dates, anecdotes, and quotations with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. Never once in the seventy-five minutes did he consult a note. It was classic George Will, and it was impressive.
Last week, however, Will reminded me that brilliant men can err, and even err substantially, when he wrote a column titled “In Afghanistan, Knowing When to Stop.” Implying that the lives of some of America’s finest young men would be squandered if the US does not withdraw, Will declared Afghanistan to be essentially not winnable, and perhaps more importantly, not worth winning. Citing the present failure of America’s nation-building and democratizing mission after eight years of effort, Will offered the following policy prescription:
Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.
On its face this must sound tempting to a wide audience. Such a policy would save the lives of Marines and soldiers on the ground, save tax-payers the expense of deploying 68,000 troops, and use air-power to play to American technological strengths. The problem with this thinking is not only that it has failed before, but that it has failed before in Afghanistan. Less than twenty years ago, the United States abandoned its mujahideen allies after a decade of arming them against the Soviet Union. We know who filled that vacuum.
George Will argues that Afghanistan is underdeveloped, has a tiny GDP, and is not worth American blood and treasure. To emphasize the point, he asks whether the US should also nation-build in “Somalia, Yemen, and other sovereignty vacuums.” Proponents of withdrawal made the same arguments twenty years ago. They declared that the US had helped the Afghans enough and it was time to leave them to “sort it out.”
Of course a fractured nation such as Afghanistan does not easily “sort it out” when shrewd geopolitical players like Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are waiting to step in and tip the scales in favor of their preferred partisans. In the aftermath of the Red Army withdrawal, many of the heroes of the war against the Soviets were left facing ruthless warlords armed with foreign money and weapons. The vacuum created by American withdrawal left Afghanistan open to outside manipulation that was in direct opposition to American interests and security. Today, to that list of outside players may be added China and Russia, larger and more powerful than any of the previous three and possessed of substantial ambitions in Central Asia.
The Taliban takeover was not inevitable in the 1990s. Most of the Afghan freedom fighters were not Islamists or jihadists but proud tribesmen defending their land as had their ancestors for generations. Neither did most Afghans desire a continuance of the corrupt, chaotic, and violent rule of the warlords. Backed by foreign money and arms, the Taliban emerged with promises of stability. The stability they brought was that of Wahhabi repression of indigenous Afghan Islam–and of alliance with and sponsorship of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
America reaped the fruit when unmolested jihadist training camps, hosted by the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, produced hardened fighters who brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon. I was two blocks from the White House that day and watched the black smoke billow across the Potomac, before the Secret Service, with weapons drawn, made us get off the roof, and we joined the throngs leaving downtown via Connecticut Avenue. As is true for many Americans that witnessed these events either in person or on television, such things are seared on my mind.
That said, if the lesson of 9/11 is not that bad things happen when Afghanistan is left as a vacuum for regional players to fill with anti-American radicals, then what is?
While violence is escalating, and the war in Afghanistan is at a tipping point, the war is not lost. There are tribal leaders who understand the value of American and NATO assistance, and they want peace, freedom, and prosperity for their people. They desire neither Taliban nor warlord domination and they are furious with the corruption and ineptitude of the Karzai government. They are also outraged when their people are killed by missiles seeking Taliban targets.
Equally important, there are American officers who understand the need to win the confidence of the tribes and to enlist them, as tribes, in the cause of the greater nation. They recognize that the Afghan warrior will not be won over by a foreign superpower that declines to put its own young men into the field or that refuses to meet him with respect.
An “offshore” war as Will prescribes has the potential to create the opposite result of engagement with the tribes. Mistakes inevitably happen with missiles, hardening opposition among the tribes in whose midst the Taliban must hide to survive and carry out their war. Moreover, as one Afghan chief has told me, for the cost of a single missile, a whole group of local tribal fighters could be recruited to clear their own valleys and villages of Taliban and warlord forces alike. But such a strategy at its most fundamental level requires engagement, not disengagement.
George Will quoted a Dutch officer saying that walking through a southern province of Afghanistan is “like walking through the Old Testament.” Perhaps in such a statement there is an unintentional lesson. The Afghans have indeed been a proud, fierce, and honorbound people since the time Esther was influencing Xerxes to better treat the Israelites. As the Afghans are still such a people, we can look to history for instruction. In that blank page of the Bible that separates the Old Testament from the New, and the Persian Empire from the Roman, Alexander the Great figured out that if you win the tribes, you can win Afghanistan; lose the tribes and you face intractable insurgency. Two millennia later, Disraeli’s Britons and Gorbachev’s Soviets would surely concur. Given the strange consistencies of Afghanistan over time, and the disastrous ramifications of withdrawal two decades ago, we should recognize that knowing when to stop is not nearly as important as learning how to win.