|An American medic treats a wounded French soldier in Afghanistan.|
Something huge happened today: we gave up in Afghanistan. This was a long time coming. American interest in the war has fallen substantially and is now nearly non-existent. The Republicans did not mention the war at their convention (Clint Eastwood's mention of Afghanistan in his speech, the only mention of the war in the Republican convention, does not count) and devoted just part of a paragraph to it in their platform while the Democrats mentioned the war just once at their convention. The war receives just two percent of all news coverage. Although everything from the high price and difficulty of the covering the war to the complexity of the conflict (which makes it too difficult for most Americans to understand), the main reason the war is not featured in the media is simple: people just don’t care about it. Three-fourths of Americans disapprove of the war, and almost none rank it as the most important issue in the Presidential election. Even the government is ignoring the war. Because of its unpopularity, the war in Afghanistan is ignored by the President. The most popular solution, speeding the withdrawal, is militarily impossible: the Afghan army is not ready to maintain order in Afghanistan or combat terrorism, evidenced by its systemic corruption, its failure in counter-terrorism operations (specifically in the Helmand region), and, most importantly, the huge number of green-on-blue attacks that raise questions about the loyalty and cohesiveness of the Afghan force. The President knows that he is in a double-bind: succumbing to popular opinion would lead to a partial collapse of the Afghan state at best and a Taliban resurgence at worst, neither of which would go over well with voters, while dragging on the expensive and bloody war is unpopular. The best solution for the President is to thus keep the war out of the spotlight, where it cannot hurt his chances for re-election.
All of this collective disgust with the war and ignorance towards it has an effect on the situation on the ground. The President’s sole focus in Afghanistan has, for the past year, been trying to end the war as quickly as possible. The entirety of the Afghanistan section in his platform is devoted to reminding the American people that he is orchestrating the withdrawal of American forces from the country. Indeed, his entire line of attack against Romney in his platform is that Romney “has suggested he would leave [American troops in Afghanistan] indefinitely.” The consequences of this have been his decision to publicly announce the withdrawal timeline (which is very useful for the Taliban because it gives them a clearly defined schedule for preparing to reconquer Afghanistan, a schedule that yesterday’s massive, complex attack on “impregnable” Camp Bastion proves they are following) and to leave no troops in Afghanistan after the deadline, which could contribute to instability there if the Afghan army is not ready by 2014, as now looks probable.
The president’s strategy vis-a-vis Afghanistan is now shifting to include another aim: keep the war out of the spotlight. This shift in strategy is best illustrated by today’s announcement that man-on-man training of the Afghan army, which is more effective than training in huge groups (think of the benefits of learning from a tutor over learning in a huge lecture hall), will be ended. This will surely reduce number of American casualties (which will also reduce the amount of news coverage the war receives), but it will make the Afghan army less effective. Although it can be argued that Obama is simply showing concern for our troops, we have to keep in mind that the point of sending soldiers somewhere is for them to go into harm’s way. While it is very generous of Obama to care for American troops, it runs counter to the point of deploying soldiers somewhere in the first place.
It’s hard to place the blame on Obama for America’s failure to fully commit to Afghanistan because it is brought on by the American people’s apathy and disgust towards the war. Mitt Romney’s vague plan for Afghanistan, which consists of little other than a promise to provide security in South and Central Asia (that’s about as specific as if he made his China policy “interact with China”) and a criticism of Obama’s public announcement of the withdrawal timeline. If we want to see change in our Afghanistan policy, we need to take interest in the war. We can’t have both a speedy withdrawal and a low-intensity war. We have to ramp up troop training efforts and supervision of the Afghan forces if we want order to stay in the country. Bases for drones and special operations will have to stay past the 2014 deadline in the likely event that terrorism threatens the Afghan government. We may even need to do a top-down restructuring of the Afghan government and military to root out corruption and diffuse power from the current elite to include more ethnic groups. Will this take a lot of effort and resources? Of course. But we have committed far too many resources to Afghanistan to simply half-ass the final, crucial transition and waste our 11 years of hard work there. Afghanistan is not just some backwards hellhole that we invaded in an imperialist fit of post-9/11 rage. It is a resource rich energy hub that, if its natural gas and minerals are exploited and the proposed pipelines through there are built, could change the balance of power in Asia depending on which country, China or India (or both or neither) exploits it first. It is a key piece in the struggle between India, a rising superpower, and Pakistan, an important player in the War on Terror, that shapes all of our interactions with South Asia and most of our policy towards the Indian Ocean. And, finally, it has the potential to become a terrorist base once again, which would allow for Al-Qaeda to launch another mass casualty attack on the American mainland. Afghanistan is still crucial to our country’s security, and if we give up now, all our resources spent their will be wasted. If the American public puts pressure on the Administration to go whole hog in Afghanistan, we may yet succeed. It is not yet too late.