I have two quick thoughts in response to George Will's argument in today's Washington Post that the United States should pull out of Afghanistan and instead "do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small potent Special Forces units..."
First, the strategy Will proposes looks a lot closer to the one we've been following for the past few years -- to little effect -- as opposed to the one General McChrystal is now proposing. Yes, there has been much talk of counterinsurgency of late, but when you starve such a strategy of resources and rely on leaders who seem either unwilling or unable to implement it, you are largely left, by necessity, with whack-a-mole counterterrorism. And we've seen what that's gotten us: a reliance on airstrikes that have produced huge civilian casualties, the increasing loss of territory to the Taliban, a Karzai government that has grown less effective and more corrupt the weaker it has become -- in short, everything that Will is inveighing against at present. I find little reason to think that things in Afghanistan will improve to the benefit of our national interest if we do more of what clearly hasn't been working these past few years.
Second, I am happy that Will proposed an alternative strategy. Too often, especially as Afghanistan is concerned, critics criticize -- and there is certainly much to criticize in Afghanistan -- without stating what they'd do instead. That said, it seems to me that critics like Will -- or others, for that matter, like Steve Walt and Michael Cohen -- should also be willing to explain why their alternative policy is better given what would likely transpire as a result. To me, that would be some kind of a return to ethnic fighting or civil war a la the 1990s, the likely collapse or complete marginalization of the current Kabul government, the expansion of Taliban control over even more of the country, an even greater increase in civilian causalities as the United States and NATO "do what can be done from offshore," a return to backing whatever Afghan factions (read: warlords) are willing to take the fight to our enemies, a dangerous rise in regional instability, and the acceptance of all the misery that would ensue.
What's more, it seems that the burden of proof is on the critics as to why this flaming mess would not also be a threat to our interests, given recent history. The hardest of the hard core "Next-Gen Taliban" commanders seem even more violent, more radical, and more sympathetic to Al Qaeda's ideology than their elders, like Mullah Omar. So do we really think that these guys, if they gain a foothold in Afghanistan, will not then turn around and begin to press their advantage into Pakistan? Do we really think that they will not reopen Afghanistan as an Al Qaeda safe haven, considering how intermingled and intermarried and fellow-traveling the Taliban vanguard now is with Al Qaeda? All of these scenarios, and more, seem like pretty safe assumptions in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. And as for Will's point that there are other potential safe havens in the world where Al Qaeda could be (Somalia, Yemen, etc.) -- this is true, but that's not a reason to stop trying to deny Al Qaeda and its allies a safe haven where they are currently (which, admittedly, is more Pakistan than Afghanistan -- for now).
The problem in Afghanistan is not that a counterinsurgency strategy has failed, but that is hasn't really ever been tried. There are risks with either strategy, be it reinforcement or withdrawal, but I'd like to hear from the critics why their alternative is better in light of its likely implications, which to me seem pretty awful. Given how bad things would likely get in Afghanistan if we adopted Will's prescriptions, shouldn't we at least give McChrystal's plan a decent period of time to work before pulling the ripcord?
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.