August 08, 2009

The Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue: Day One

For more on the project, click here. There have already been some great submissions. Many thanks to reader "Scott Wedman" for this initial conversation-starter:

The war in Afghanistan is in the interests of the United States for four reasons. First, increasing stability in Afghanistan and preventing Taliban control of the country deprives Al Qaeda of an important training ground, making an attack on the American homeland, American forces deployed abroad, and other Americans abroad less likely. Second, fighting the Taliban undermines their efforts to make further gains in Pakistan, which matters given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and, if the Taliban gets nuclear weapons it would not be good for American national interests. Even given deterrence and all those good things, it still massively increases the risks to the American homeland for the Taliban -- and probably Al Qaeda -- to have access to nuclear weapons. Third, while it is unpopular with progressives to say it like this for a variety of reasons, the Taliban stand firmly against nearly everything we stand for as Americans: rights for women, rights for GLBT, other constitutional rights that are protected in the United States, etc. Abandoning the Afghan people to that fate would be awful. Reasonable people might argue that that is not the responsibility of the United States – and at some level of cost, the argument swings. However, it is always important to keep in mind, even if we decide as a country to pull out of Afghanistan before the job is done, the fundamentally loathsome character of the Taliban and their beliefs about governance. Progressives should be just as angry about this, if not more so, than others in the United States. Fourth, whether or not one agreed with the war in the first place, the United States has a lot of credibility now invested in Afghanistan. This administration in particular has singled it out as important even as it begins drawing down American forces in Iraq at a faster rate. To cut and run now would terribly damage American credibility around the world. Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda affiliates have explicitly cited the American withdrawal from Lebanon in the ‘80s and Somalia in the ‘90s as demonstrating the weak character of the United States, showing that Al Qaeda and its allies can succeed if they attack America and its interests enough. To withdraw from Afghanistan in a way that ceded control to the Taliban would be the single biggest propaganda victory for Al Qaeda possible, guaranteeing them new recruits, new energy, and thus arguably increasing the risk of attacks against the United States.

These are all big picture arguments. One might argue that continuing to fight in Afghanistan will make all of these things worse and thus the United States should leave. But I do not think it is fair to say that the United States has no interests in Afghanistan in particular or Central Asia in general. I’m not saying these interests necessarily mandate a particular strategy in the war or the use of particular tactics. But they do suggest that withdrawal from Afghanistan would be dangerous for American interests.