By Robert D. Kaplan
Jan. 1, 2019
The decision by President Trump to withdraw
7,000 of the roughly 14,000 American troops left in Afghanistan, possibly by
summer, has raised new concerns about his impulsive behaviour, especially given
his nearly simultaneous decision to pull out all American forces from Syria
against the advice of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But the downsizing of the
Afghan mission was probably inevitable. Indeed, it may soon be time for the
United States to get out of the country altogether.
No other country in the world symbolizes
the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually
no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of
leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy
community has mostly been unable to accept.
While many American troops stay behind
steel-reinforced concrete walls to protect themselves from the very population
they are supposed to help, it is striking how little discussion Afghanistan has
generated in government and media circles in Washington. When it comes to
Afghanistan, Washington has been a city hiding behind its own walls of shame
While the Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians and
Iranians are all developing competing energy and mining projects in and next
door to Afghanistan, the United States appears to have little commercial future
in the country, even though it spends about $45 billion there annually. The
total cost of the war could reach as high as $2 trillion when long-term costs
are factored in, according to Brown University's Cost of War Project. All that
to prop up an unstable government that would most likely disintegrate if aid
were to end.
Indeed, Afghanistan represents the triumph
of the deterministic forces of geography, history, culture, and ethnic and
sectarian awareness, with Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and other groups
competing for patches of ground. Tribes, warlords and mafia-style networks that
control the drug trade rule huge segments of the country. To show just how
perverted Western experts’ view of the situation has become, the British
regional specialist Anatol Lieven, writing in The National Interest, argues
that “just because the U.S. money was stolen does not mean that it was wasted,”
since it has gone to paying off tribal chiefs to keep them from joining the
Taliban or becoming feuding warlords.
It did not have to be like this. Had the
United States not become diverted from rebuilding the country by its invasion
of Iraq in 2003 (which I mistakenly supported), or had different military and
development policies been tried, these forces of division might have been
overcome. According to the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, there was simply
too much emphasis on the electoral process in Kabul and not nearly enough on
bread-and-butter nation building — in particular, bringing basic infrastructure
and agriculture up to the standards that Afghans enjoyed from the 1950s until
the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Certainly, no place is hopeless. But that
is not where we are now. The heavily Pashtun Taliban, an accessory to the Sept.
11 hijackings, continues to make battlefield gains and, if there are actual
peace negotiations, is poised to share power with the American-backed
government of President Ashraf Ghani, if not eventually replace it. The United
States’ special adviser to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is trying to broker a
diplomatic solution that allows the United States to draw down its forces
without the political foundation in Kabul disintegrating immediately.
That may be the real reason the United
States keeps spending so heavily in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is terrified of a
repeat of 1975, when panicked South Vietnamese fled Saigon as Americans pulled
out and North Vietnamese forces advanced on the city. The United States
military did not truly begin to recover from that humiliation until its victory
in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. An abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan could
conceivably provide a new symbol of the decline in American hard power.
There is also the fear that an Afghanistan
in chaos could once again provide a haven for an international terrorist group
determined to perpetrate another Sept. 11-scale attack. Of course, Yemen,
Somalia and a number of other places could also provide the setting for that.
The point is, we remain in Afghanistan out
of fear of even worse outcomes, rather than in the expectation of better ones.
Washington now merely hopes that Mr. Khalilzad, an experienced diplomat born in
Afghanistan, can deliver a decent interval of stability.
The Chinese, Pakistanis, Russians, Indians
and Iranians, meanwhile, may all be benefiting more from America’s military
operations in Afghanistan than the United States is. Our presence may provide
just enough security to allow their energy and transport corridors to take
shape, while also helping the Russians guard against Islamic terrorism on their
southern border. Thus, our rivals build their own empires on the back of our
One might argue that a collapse of the
pro-American government in Kabul would allow those countries to gain even
greater footholds in Afghanistan. But then stabilizing the unruly country would
become their problem.
An enterprising American diplomat, backed
by a coherent administration, could try to organize an international peace
conference involving Afghanistan and its neighbors, one focused on denying
terrorist groups a base in South-Central Asia.
It is the kind of project that Henry
Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke, James Baker III or George Shultz would have taken
up in their day. But it is not something anyone can reasonably expect this
administration, as chaotic, understaffed and incompetent as it is, to
undertake, especially with the departure of Mr. Mattis.
Do we owe it to the Afghan people to stay?
Not if the ideals that we claim to represent appear unachievable. Spending
billions and stationing thousands of troops there with no end in sight to stem
a deepening chaos is simply not sustainable policy. Even a small fraction of
that money could be better spent on smarter infrastructure investments in Asia,
such as liquid natural gas terminals and dual-use ports in Vietnam to compete
with China’s maritime Belt and Road Initiative.
Our withdrawal should not be sudden. It
should reduce outlays and give Ambassador Khalilzad time to work out an
arrangement with our allies, all without public timetables that enable our
adversaries to wait us out.
But let’s be honest with ourselves: Afghanistan
is like the huge and hugely expensive aircraft carriers we continue to build,
increasingly obsolete in an era of sophisticated missile technology and
hypersonic warfare. It is a vestigial limb of empire, and it is time to let it
Robert D. Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American
Security and a senior adviser at Eurasia Group, is the author of, most
recently, “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American
Interests in the Twenty-First Century.”