As President Obama and Afghan President Karzai moved closer to agreeing on a faster American troop withdrawal in Afghanistan last Friday, it’s looking more likely that the outcome after 2014 will be what’s now called the “zero option.” This would mean no American troop presence in Afghanistan after the end of 2014’s scheduled drawdown. And if the US and Afghanistan can’t agree on immunity from prosecution for American troops after 2014, the zero option appears to be a certainty.
To my way of thinking, conservatives ought to be supporting the zero option for any number of good reasons. First of all, conserving American lives and money. We’ve seen that the correlation between American troops in Afghanistan and violence in Afghanistan seems to be the opposite of what the generals have told us—i.e., that more troops means more violence. On the contrary, Afghanistan was far safer in 2003 and 2004 than it is today. So there’s a compelling argument that zero American troops would be likely to lead to zero violence.
Second of all, the threadbare argument that al-Qaeda will regroup in Afghanistan is belied by the fact that al-Qaeda seems to prefer North Africa these days. It’s not as though Afghanistan had some intrinsic value as an al-Qaeda bastion. They seek ungoverned spaces, and there are better offerings now.
Yet many conservatives seem desperate to cast the Republican Party as the party of war—any war, no matter how foolish. Any “retreat” from endless conflict strikes them as wrong. And so conservative pundits Frederick and Kimberly Kagan were quick to condemn the zero option in a January 9th Wall Street Journal op-ed. The Kagans have usually backed the generals who think Afghanistan can be won with more troops, and this time is no exception. In this blog last March, I took Kimberly Kagan to task for her lack of clarity about measuring progress in Afghanistan on the occasion of a program at the think tank she heads, the Institute for the Study of War. The WSJ piece is just as sly, or perhaps ill-informed.
The Kagans claim that, without American support:
There would be no more American soldiers fighting alongside Afghans, as in the past, and not even embedded US trainers in their units. The Afghans would not be able to call in US air, artillery, or medical support. These are the enablers that have given the Afghans both the confidence and the combat power to stand and fight for the past three years, taking casualties several times as numerous as the coalition. Brave as the Afghan soldiers are, they simply cannot stand and fight without US support.
Of course, this neglects the fact that Afghans happily killed each other for thirty years without American troops on the ground. And that in the last couple of years Afghans have been happily killing their American trainers in increasing numbers. But more seriously, it neglects the fact that the war against the Taliban is basically a low-tech war in which the Afghan National Army just needs to be a bit better, not as good as a Western army. And in many respects, it makes more sense to fight the Taliban on their own terms.
American field-grade officers and senior enlisted soldiers have told me many times that the Taliban have an effective low-tech way of fighting in Afghanistan, as does the Afghan National Army, when they are left to their own devices. Both sides favor motorcycles in terrain that is often too rugged for our up-armored Humvees and—for a combination of good and bad reasons—don’t wear body armor or even, sometimes, helmets. They are able to dash up hills—common terrain in Afghanistan—and deal with the rudimentary, pitted roads by using two wheels rather than four. Afghans can often tell when the dirt roads have been disturbed by an IED-emplacing team, as American soldiers tell me they cannot, so they are less reliant on up-armored vehicles. We could in theory copy the Afghan tactics, but probably at initial higher loss of life, and it is politically unacceptable to tell the American public that we are abandoning our way of war for the Afghan way at this point in the game.
As for air power, well, the Taliban are winning and they don’t have an air force. Given the often irrational hostility of the Afghan people to air strikes, it is arguable that the ANA would antagonize fewer Afghans if it didn’t use air strikes either.
On a broader level, the Kagans seem not to understand the nature of the war they’ve been advising on for many years. They state that “the civil war has been largely suspended since 2001.” But it has been obvious to Afghans and many foreign observers for some time that the conflict is more or less a civil war, pitting northern Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and others who join the Afghan National Army and Police against southern and eastern Pashtuns who join the Taliban or cooperate with them. Is it likely the war will heat up when we draw down to a skeleton force or zero troops? Unclear. To some extent the current civil war is a proxy war about the presence of foreign troops, so there’s a good argument to be made that when we leave violence will fall.
But even if the Taliban are heartened by our exit, there’s a limit to what they can accomplish. Their backing is almost exclusively from the Pashtuns, who are 40 percent of the population, and the other 60 percent are in a much better position now than they were prior to 2001. One of the effects of the NATO presence has been to empower the non-Pashtuns—unintentionally—by empowering the national army the Pashtuns rarely join. Another effect is to open careers and wealth to young people of talent who are not from politically powerful families. Perhaps the classic case over the last decades has been the rise of the Hazara minority—much oppressed by the Taliban because they are Shia—through their statistical over-representation in higher education. The American University of Afghanistan, the best-known private college, is jokingly known as the “Hazara University of Afghanistan” because so many Hazara families have scraped together the $5,000 annual tuition or encouraged their children to seek scholarships.
While I am not a huge optimist about Afghanistan’s transition to a Western-style democracy, I do not think we will set in motion the collapse of the country or its reversion to the Taliban if we remove all our troops. It’s not a decision to be made lightly, but it’s not a decision to be made based on stale, ideologically based arguments. And whether a given conservative supports or opposes the “zero option,” the recent election results suggest that being identified as the party of continuous war and war spending does not do our cause any good.
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