Afghanistan Matters

George Will has thrown down the gauntlet.  While a few conservatives have always been reluctant about our efforts in Afghanistan, Will’s September 1, column advocating withdrawal has opened a rift on the American right with conservatives taking sides.  George Will says it’s time to quit Afghanistan.  As a soldier who was in Afghanistan for most of 2008 I say unequivocally George Will is wrong; Afghanistan matters.

Will has surprising allies including former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy here. They say we can’t win, though we’ve managed to achieve success in Iraq.  They claim that our struggle is against al-Qaeda not the Taliban.  This is akin to saying our fight was against the Japanese and giving Hitler a pass.  They say Pakistan is more important, but they don’t say how losing our base in Afghanistan will solve that nation’s problems.

The debate is set against the background of an expected decision by President Obama on whether to heed his generals, who are calling for an Iraq like Surge, or to find a quicker way out.   Obama may have campaigned on the premise of supporting the “right war” in Afghanistan, but liberals, including most of the Democratic congress oppose any expansion of US forces abroad.  The left is now getting help from Will and McCarthy on the right.  The stakes in Afghanistan are high.  The Taliban, our enemy, are resurgent, enabled by NATO’s inability to fight a consistent counter-insurgency campaign, and the porous border with Pakistan.  

Pakistan, aye there is the rub.  That nation has descended into its own chaos.  The region along Pakistan’s Afghan border, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is a Pashtun-Taliban enclave, inaccessible to any forces friendly to the US.  The Pakistani military, a nuclear armed force of over a million men including reserves, cannot even access, much less control its own border.

The mountainous region, including the FATA, straddling the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is at times referred to as Pashtun-istan.  The Pashtuns, a 42 million strong ethnic group, are minority populations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Pashtuns have always been the core strength of the Taliban.  Not all Pashtuns are Taliban, but most Taliban are Pashtuns. Tribal ties, tradition, and ethnic politics lead most Pashtuns to support the Taliban.

Afghanistan continues to be a failed state, Pakistan is failing.  We have the opportunity to continue to influence events in the region due to our presence in Afghanistan.  Should the US withdraw entirely from Afghanistan certain events are highly likely to unfold.  The first would be a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.  The Taliban might not see the complete victory they achieved in 1996.  They would at least end up seizing and dominating several provinces.  These provinces would certainly include several, North and East, which dominate the landlocked nation’s rudimentary road net.  The Taliban would gain a stranglehold on the Afghan economy.

They would also rule the Pashtun speaking border region.  The resulting consequences of this outcome are impossible to predict.  However a larger autonomous Taliban dominated zone would surely threaten the weak Pakistani government.  The unspoken, nightmare outcome, we all seek to avoid, is the takeover of Pakistan by the Taliban.

 Pakistan is a nuclear power.  Yet in spite of this modern achievement, it is a failing nation.  Assassination and civil violence have dominated recent politics.  The populace is fragmented ethnically and politically.  The urban elites live western lives with modern hopes.  Most others live poor desperate lives.  Islam is the single greatest unifying factor.  Pakistanis of various ethnicities have shown a consistent predilection for anti-American, anti-western, pro-Taliban politics.

Two or even three Talibanized nations in place of today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan are in no one’s interest, especially if one of them is nuclear armed.  Remember, Afghanistan’s western neighbor is the WMD seeking state of Iran.  That nation has infiltrated arms and personnel into the western Farsi speaking provinces of Afghanistan to pressure the US and Afghan governments, and to create its own sphere of influence
    
George Will’s imagined scenario of special-forces and airpower serving in place of boots on the ground in Afghanistan surely sounds good to deskbound policy wonks.  But they would do well to remember that policy failed us through the Clinton era.  At that time Pakistan was under the more stable hand of Musharraf.  

If we abandon our foothold in Afghanistan, we abandon our contacts on the ground.  In order for predators, cruise missiles, and SF operators to succeed repeatedly against al-Qaeda, or any other enemies, our forces need human intelligence.  This is why al-Qaeda and the Taliban high command retreated to and continue to hide in the inaccessible reaches of Pakistan.  It’s why al-Qaeda chose the then closed state of Afghanistan as a base in the first place.

A premature withdrawal from Afghanistan will also present a tremendous propaganda victory to the Taliban.  This would be a truly strategic weapon for all of our Islamist enemies in the current struggle.  George Will has stepped up his campaign, and now wants to quit Iraq early as well.  He cites the ties that Shiite Iran has established with Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a reason to end our commitment there.

If we were to follow Mr. Will’s prescription, by 2011 we could be facing a hostile band of powers stretching from the India-Pakistan border through Syria, to the Mediterranean. This would be the worst middle-eastern scenario the US ever faced, as bad as the Soviet dominated region envisioned by Carter and Reagan circa 1980.  We could face two Islamic, hostile, nuclear powers.  Such an outcome would represent the beginning of the end for Israel.   It would signify the end of American hegemony, and the start of a truly new world order; one that would be highly unfavorable to our interests.

These are just the consequences for us.  Mr. Will would also abandon the Afghans, the Iraqis and others to the Taliban to the likeminded Shia of Iran, and to al-Qaeda.  He and his applause section remind us that Islam is incompatible with democracy, that extremism pervades the region, and that generally we have no business there anymore.

While I do not subscribe to the left’s drivel that poverty and frustration are the root of terrorism, I think that a poorer more Islamic mid-east will be more miserable for the Afghans and Iraqis, and the Pakistanis and Iranians.  Having spent time in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen that most people there want peace and prosperity.  They want to end the violence and raise their children more comfortably than poverty and war has thus far allowed.

While Islam may indeed lend itself to oppressive rule, so did Christianity, for nearly two millennia of Romans, feudalism, and absolutism.  Today, millions of Iraqis and Afghans have shown an appreciation for democracy, and the idea of peaceful, lawful change of governments.  Come to think of it, so have the much abused Lebanese.  In Iran, millions voted, and when the mullahs executed a massive electoral fraud millions protested.  In India millions of Muslims regularly live peaceful lives in a democracy.

It is true that democratizing the Islamic world is not, and should not be the primary prescriptive mission of the US military.  However to cede the entire middle-east to the forces of extremism, to abandon our allies, to surrender our security, and make the world a much more dangerous place seems folly.  And to do it so that we can say we are not nation building, so that our military is doing what a few purists claim is “its job” is beyond foolishness.  My job as a soldier is to preserve the security of my nation by whatever means necessary.  Right now I can’t think of a better way we can do that than holding the line against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
 
John Byrnes is a reservist. He spent 2008 in Kunduz, Afghanistan where he advised an Afghan National Police company on counter-insurgency. His email is jrb1013@aol.com.


George Will has thrown down the gauntlet.  While a few conservatives have always been reluctant about our efforts in Afghanistan, Will’s September 1, column advocating withdrawal has opened a rift on the American right with conservatives taking sides.  George Will says it’s time to quit Afghanistan.  As a soldier who was in Afghanistan for most of 2008 I say unequivocally George Will is wrong; Afghanistan matters.

Will has surprising allies including former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy here. They say we can’t win, though we’ve managed to achieve success in Iraq.  They claim that our struggle is against al-Qaeda not the Taliban.  This is akin to saying our fight was against the Japanese and giving Hitler a pass.  They say Pakistan is more important, but they don’t say how losing our base in Afghanistan will solve that nation’s problems.

The debate is set against the background of an expected decision by President Obama on whether to heed his generals, who are calling for an Iraq like Surge, or to find a quicker way out.   Obama may have campaigned on the premise of supporting the “right war” in Afghanistan, but liberals, including most of the Democratic congress oppose any expansion of US forces abroad.  The left is now getting help from Will and McCarthy on the right.  The stakes in Afghanistan are high.  The Taliban, our enemy, are resurgent, enabled by NATO’s inability to fight a consistent counter-insurgency campaign, and the porous border with Pakistan.  

Pakistan, aye there is the rub.  That nation has descended into its own chaos.  The region along Pakistan’s Afghan border, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is a Pashtun-Taliban enclave, inaccessible to any forces friendly to the US.  The Pakistani military, a nuclear armed force of over a million men including reserves, cannot even access, much less control its own border.

The mountainous region, including the FATA, straddling the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is at times referred to as Pashtun-istan.  The Pashtuns, a 42 million strong ethnic group, are minority populations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Pashtuns have always been the core strength of the Taliban.  Not all Pashtuns are Taliban, but most Taliban are Pashtuns. Tribal ties, tradition, and ethnic politics lead most Pashtuns to support the Taliban.

Afghanistan continues to be a failed state, Pakistan is failing.  We have the opportunity to continue to influence events in the region due to our presence in Afghanistan.  Should the US withdraw entirely from Afghanistan certain events are highly likely to unfold.  The first would be a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.  The Taliban might not see the complete victory they achieved in 1996.  They would at least end up seizing and dominating several provinces.  These provinces would certainly include several, North and East, which dominate the landlocked nation’s rudimentary road net.  The Taliban would gain a stranglehold on the Afghan economy.

They would also rule the Pashtun speaking border region.  The resulting consequences of this outcome are impossible to predict.  However a larger autonomous Taliban dominated zone would surely threaten the weak Pakistani government.  The unspoken, nightmare outcome, we all seek to avoid, is the takeover of Pakistan by the Taliban.

 Pakistan is a nuclear power.  Yet in spite of this modern achievement, it is a failing nation.  Assassination and civil violence have dominated recent politics.  The populace is fragmented ethnically and politically.  The urban elites live western lives with modern hopes.  Most others live poor desperate lives.  Islam is the single greatest unifying factor.  Pakistanis of various ethnicities have shown a consistent predilection for anti-American, anti-western, pro-Taliban politics.

Two or even three Talibanized nations in place of today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan are in no one’s interest, especially if one of them is nuclear armed.  Remember, Afghanistan’s western neighbor is the WMD seeking state of Iran.  That nation has infiltrated arms and personnel into the western Farsi speaking provinces of Afghanistan to pressure the US and Afghan governments, and to create its own sphere of influence
    
George Will’s imagined scenario of special-forces and airpower serving in place of boots on the ground in Afghanistan surely sounds good to deskbound policy wonks.  But they would do well to remember that policy failed us through the Clinton era.  At that time Pakistan was under the more stable hand of Musharraf.  

If we abandon our foothold in Afghanistan, we abandon our contacts on the ground.  In order for predators, cruise missiles, and SF operators to succeed repeatedly against al-Qaeda, or any other enemies, our forces need human intelligence.  This is why al-Qaeda and the Taliban high command retreated to and continue to hide in the inaccessible reaches of Pakistan.  It’s why al-Qaeda chose the then closed state of Afghanistan as a base in the first place.

A premature withdrawal from Afghanistan will also present a tremendous propaganda victory to the Taliban.  This would be a truly strategic weapon for all of our Islamist enemies in the current struggle.  George Will has stepped up his campaign, and now wants to quit Iraq early as well.  He cites the ties that Shiite Iran has established with Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a reason to end our commitment there.

If we were to follow Mr. Will’s prescription, by 2011 we could be facing a hostile band of powers stretching from the India-Pakistan border through Syria, to the Mediterranean. This would be the worst middle-eastern scenario the US ever faced, as bad as the Soviet dominated region envisioned by Carter and Reagan circa 1980.  We could face two Islamic, hostile, nuclear powers.  Such an outcome would represent the beginning of the end for Israel.   It would signify the end of American hegemony, and the start of a truly new world order; one that would be highly unfavorable to our interests.

These are just the consequences for us.  Mr. Will would also abandon the Afghans, the Iraqis and others to the Taliban to the likeminded Shia of Iran, and to al-Qaeda.  He and his applause section remind us that Islam is incompatible with democracy, that extremism pervades the region, and that generally we have no business there anymore.

While I do not subscribe to the left’s drivel that poverty and frustration are the root of terrorism, I think that a poorer more Islamic mid-east will be more miserable for the Afghans and Iraqis, and the Pakistanis and Iranians.  Having spent time in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen that most people there want peace and prosperity.  They want to end the violence and raise their children more comfortably than poverty and war has thus far allowed.

While Islam may indeed lend itself to oppressive rule, so did Christianity, for nearly two millennia of Romans, feudalism, and absolutism.  Today, millions of Iraqis and Afghans have shown an appreciation for democracy, and the idea of peaceful, lawful change of governments.  Come to think of it, so have the much abused Lebanese.  In Iran, millions voted, and when the mullahs executed a massive electoral fraud millions protested.  In India millions of Muslims regularly live peaceful lives in a democracy.

It is true that democratizing the Islamic world is not, and should not be the primary prescriptive mission of the US military.  However to cede the entire middle-east to the forces of extremism, to abandon our allies, to surrender our security, and make the world a much more dangerous place seems folly.  And to do it so that we can say we are not nation building, so that our military is doing what a few purists claim is “its job” is beyond foolishness.  My job as a soldier is to preserve the security of my nation by whatever means necessary.  Right now I can’t think of a better way we can do that than holding the line against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
 
John Byrnes is a reservist. He spent 2008 in Kunduz, Afghanistan where he advised an Afghan National Police company on counter-insurgency. His email is jrb1013@aol.com.