Time to extract U.S. troops from the Afghanistan quagmire
The U.S. must remove all its ground forces from Afghanistan within the next year, argues guest columnist Alex Alben
Special to The Times
THIS October will mark the 10th anniversary of America's war in Afghanistan, a conflict begun with the specific aim of rooting out al-Qaida terrorist bases that has morphed into an exercise in "nation building" and a protracted guerrilla war.
Operation Enduring Freedom has cost the lives of more than 1,400 American soldiers and thousands more have been wounded in combat against Taliban forces, which show no sign of giving up the fight.
In a climate where our politicians in Washington, D.C., squabble over cuts to the budgets for National Public Radio and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pentagon estimates the cost of the war in Afghanistan at a current rate of $6.7 billion per month and $117 billion for fiscal year 2011. Because it is landlocked and has little infrastructure, the cost of supporting 102,000 troops in Afghanistan is roughly double the cost of deploying soldiers in Iraq. We have spent roughly $400 billion dollars in Afghanistan to date.
This continued high cost in blood and treasure might be justified if we could make lasting progress toward the goals of eradicating the Taliban and establishing institutions that foster democracy and economic progress. On every anniversary of the war, both Republican and Democratic presidents have given us sanguine forecasts of efforts to establish the rule of law and allow the Afghan people to determine their own future, as if the country were a developed nation, simply in need of temporary stewardship and the elimination of a few bad elements.
With high rates of illiteracy, government corruption, poverty and tribal loyalties that trump any notion of Western civics, we now have 10 years of proof of the intransigence of this conflict. As the Viet Cong did from 1954 to 1975 in Vietnam, the Taliban will simply wait out Western occupying armies.
Pinning the U.S. down in Afghanistan was, in fact, the overt strategy of Osama bin Laden as early as 1998, as he sought to "lure the United States into Afghanistan, which was already being called the graveyard of empires," according to "The Longest Tower," Lawrence Wright's impressive study of our longest war. Al-Qaida's embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in August of 1998, which claimed more than 200 lives and injured 4,500, were designed to provoke a military response against al-Qaida's bases in Afghanistan, after bin Laden had pledged loyalty to Mullah Omar's Taliban leadership.
In his book describing the death of NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, "Where Men Win Glory," author Jon Krakauer vividly describes the December 2001 attacks on bin Laden's hideout in Tora Bora, featuring B-52, B-1 stealth bomber and F-18 airstrikes and the deployment of American and British special forces. After escaping with the aid of the fickle mujahedeen commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, bin Laden gloated: "Despite the unprecedented scale of bombardment and the terrible propaganda all focusing on one small, besieged spot, as well as the hypocrites' forces, which they got to fight against us for over two weeks, nonstop ... we pushed them back in defeat ... "
Many Americans, myself included, supported the initial mission of retaliating against al-Qaida for the 9/11 attacks and rooting the terrorists out of their safe haven in Afghanistan, but it has been apparent now for most of a decade that NATO efforts to secure the country and make lasting progress to build Western-style institutions will achieve temporary successes in limited geographic regions at best.
Our recent airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya underline the danger of "mission creep" in a conflict that starts with stated limited goals and winds up involving a range of military resources in a futile effort to accomplish a larger outcome, such as regime change or building democracy.
Further prosecution of the war in Afghanistan only plays into bin Laden's scheme of pinning down American forces, while motivating recruits to his cause against Western "crusaders" who invade Muslim countries.
Pulling out of the conflict will lead to instability, tribal warfare and perhaps a re-establishment of the noxious Taliban. But if the alternative is an open-ended commitment to prosecute an expensive war, indefinitely sustaining American casualties while propping up a corrupt regime, the answer must be to remove all of our ground forces in the next 12 months.Alex Alben consults to high-tech and energy companies. You can email him at: email@example.com