Getting Out Of Afghanistan


Steve Coll explains how the Soviets did it:

In Afghanistan, after an initial and failed attempt to use special forces more aggressively to hit Islamist guerrillas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Soviets began to pull back into Afghanistan’s major cities and to “Afghan-ize” their military operations. As they prepared to withdraw, Soviet troops moved away from direct combat, particularly in the countryside, and instead concentrated on training and equipping the Afghan forces. They also provided supplies and expertise the Afghans lackedair power, for example, and SCUD missiles. As I described in a previous post, this military strategy worked pretty well, and the Soviet city-fortresses withstood heavy assaults from the U.S.-financed mujaheddin even after Soviet troops left the country; they left only a thousand or two military and intelligence advisers behind.

How did the US get into a situation that destroyed the last global empire? I know why, of course. That was where al Qaeda was based when 19 men with not even a single bomb were able to murder thousands in America. We went there to prevent another. I supported it fanatically. But all these years later, I can't help wondering if it was a giant trap. If someone had told me that the US would occupy Afghanistan for eight years and launch a huge counter-terrorism operation across the globe and still not have captured Osama bin Laden, and watched as al Qaeda built a new base in liberated Iraq (since cornered at enormous expense) and Pakistan (still very much alive), and elsewhere around the globe, I would have been incredulous. Yes, I know  that al Qaeda is weaker than it once was - partly because of the dedication of Western intelligence, partly by military power, partly by their own record of murdering Muslims - but the costs and benefits seem increasingly out of whack.

Yes, I should have - we all should have - seen this in advance. But I cannot believe a democracy after 9/11 would ever have tolerated doing nothing or something so minimal it would have seemed utterly insufficient.

Which leaves us where we are. Afghanistan, like Iran, presents an excruciating set of choices, which is why I find the caution and deliberation of the current administration a welcome change of pace (although, to be fair, Bush was fast moving in this direction in his second term). But any review must include the basic question: are we engaging in a rational deployment of resources? Did 9/11 psychologically mold us to over-estimate the real toll of terrorism on the West's actual interests? If terrorism claims a minuscule number of Western lives in comparison with, say, smoking, have we been conned into a global war that could actually cripple the West rather than protect it? Or would a self-interested retreat provoke a more dangerous attack in due course?

I don't know the answer to this question. But I do believe it needs to be asked. Or we will have learned very little from the war we so righteously began and have waged at such expense as the West's fiscal footing gives way underneath.

(Photo: David Furst/AFP/Getty.)