This may surprise some of you, but within the walls of 1301 Pennsylvania Ave., there is a pretty lively debate among the scholars and staff who work here about whether or not we should continue a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan when we might instead be focusing on preserving our energies for rising powers. Obviously enough, those of us who work on Afghanistan and counterinsurgency feel one way (more or less), while those who work on China and the rest of Asia feel another way (again, more or less -- it's not a black-and-white disagreement). Bob Kaplan, in today's New York Times op-ed on Afghanistan and China, articulates a lot of the debates that take place around the water cooler here at CNAS:
In nuts-and-bolts terms, if we stay in Afghanistan and eventually succeed, other countries will benefit more than we will. China, India and Russia are all Asian powers, geographically proximate to Afghanistan and better able, therefore, to garner practical advantages from any stability our armed forces would make possible.
Everyone keeps saying that America is not an empire, but our military finds itself in the sort of situation that was mighty familiar to empires like that of ancient Rome and 19th-century Britain: struggling in a far-off corner of the world to exact revenge, to put down the fires of rebellion, and to restore civilized order. Meanwhile, other rising and resurgent powers wait patiently in the wings, free-riding on the public good we offer. This is exactly how an empire declines, by allowing others to take advantage of its own exertions.
Of course, one could make an excellent case that an ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan is precisely what would lead to our decline, by demoralizing our military, signaling to our friends worldwide that we cannot be counted on and demonstrating that our enemies have greater resolve than we do. That is why we have no choice in Afghanistan but to add troops and continue to fight.
But as much as we hone our counterinsurgency skills and develop assets for the “long war,” history would suggest that over time we can more easily preserve our standing in the world by using naval and air power from a distance when intervening abroad. Afghanistan should be the very last place where we are a land-based meddler, caught up in internal Islamic conflict, helping the strategic ambitions of the Chinese and others.