The cost of a hasty re­treat from Afghanistan

The Washington Times Daily - - Business -

Two re­cent, deeply in­ter­twined acts of vi­o­lence demon­strate the ter­ri­ble bur­den hang­ing on the out­come of the U.S. in­ter­ven­tion in Afghanistan and Pak­istan. An Amer­i­can sol­dier’s al­leged ram­page tak­ing the lives of 17 Afghan vil­lagers par­al­leled the at­tack of a Franco-mah­grebi youth re­sult­ing in the deaths of seven French Mus­lim vet­er­ans and Jewish civil­ians. Not for a mo­ment should any at­tempt be made to equate the two events or, in­deed, to make any com­par­a­tive moral judg­ments. One episode was ap­par­ently a break­down into tem­po­rary in­san­ity. The other was, how­ever equally de­ranged, a pre­med­i­tated po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tion. But they are linked. The charges against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, on his fourth tour in a Mid­dle East war zone, seem a likely symp­tom of the in­creas­ingly heavy bur­den that he and his fel­low Amer­i­can war­riors have had to shoul­der. But if a mur­der­ous out­burst could be ra­tio­nal­ized as in­evitable in a guer­rilla war with no front lines, it also high­lighted the Amer­i­can public’s grow­ing fa­tigue with a decade of in­volve­ment in “far­away coun­tries about which we know lit­tle.” Only the valor and sac­ri­fice of a small por­tion of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion will­ing to com­mit to pro­fes­sional mil­i­tary ser­vice have made this ef­fort pos­si­ble — a far cry from the skewed draft Army in­volved in the Viet­nam re­treat.

Mo­hammed Merah, whom, iron­i­cally, one jour­nal­ist in­ter­locu­tor be­fore the killings char­ac­ter­ized as speak­ing im­pec­ca­ble French, is one of thou­sands of young Mus­lims, of­ten sec­on­dand third-gen­er­a­tion na­tives reared in the West who, af­ter be­com­ing rad­i­cal­ized for what­ever so­cial rea­sons, go to the Mid­dle East for guer­rilla train­ing to fight for Is­lamist causes. Some re­turn and melt back into the pop­u­la­tion. But oth­ers, un­pre­dictably, silently ded­i­cate them­selves to “lone wolf” ter­ror­ism, as Merah ap­par­ently did. Three decades of war in Afghanistan al­ready have pro­vided fer­tile ground for their ap­pren­tice­ships. But Pak­istan’s grow­ing Is­lamist rad­i­cal­ism sug­gests pos­si­bil­i­ties for a much larger gen­er­a­tion of ter­ror­ists among that coun­try’s vast di­as­pora in the West.

U.S. and NATO in­ter­ven­tion in the re­gion af­ter 9/11, how­ever it might now ap­pear, was log­i­cal in elim­i­nat­ing an im­por­tant ter­ror­ist safe haven from which strikes could have orig­i­nated. With 20/20 hind­sight, at­tempt­ing to mod­ern­ize an iso­lated, pre-in­dus­trial Afghan so­ci­ety might be viewed as a bridge too far, rather than choos­ing a sim­pler strat­egy of de­stroy­ing the ter­ror­ists’ nest, oust­ing the regime that gave them sanc­tu­ary and with­draw­ing abruptly. That larger Afghanistan ef­fort, cou­pled with the re­vival of an aban­doned aid com­mit­ment for Pak­istan, has turned out to be far more costly in blood and trea­sure than an­tic­i­pated by most Amer­i­cans un­ac­quainted with the re­gion.

Now mes­mer­ized by its own con­tin­ued eco­nomic prob­lems and the four-year cy­cle to choose its lead­er­ship, the U.S. flirts with a pre­cip­i­tous with­drawal from Afghanistan and, in­evitably as a re­sult, from Pak­istan. The ar­bi­trary troop with­drawal plan sched­uled by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has em­bold­ened old en­e­mies. With­out a de­fin­i­tive U.S. vic­tory, Tal­iban rem­nants, shad­ing over into the kinds of ter­ror­ists who car­ried out 9/11, are brazenly reemerg­ing not only there, but also through­out the Mus­lim world.

That a U.S. with­drawal would re­turn the re­gion to the sta­tus quo ante seems un­likely. Far too much has hap­pened. But con­tin­ued tar­get­ing by U.S. drones (with Pak­istan’s tacit in­tel­li­gence col­lab­o­ra­tion) of “for­eign­ers” in the tribal regions along the fic­ti­tious Afghanistan- Pak­istan bor­der is ev­i­dence enough to be con­cerned about the ef­fects of a rapid U.S. re­treat.

But it may well be that the U.S. public will make that choice for all the ob­vi­ous rea­sons.

As al­ways, there is no pre­dict­ing unan­tic­i­pated con­se­quences. But a likely pos­si­bil­ity is chaos in Afghanistan and fur­ther ero­sion of a Pak­istani regime un­der its in­com­pe­tent civil­ian lead­er­ship and an in­creas­ingly dis­cred­ited mil­i­tary, a mil­i­tary on which the regime has so heav­ily de­pended since in­de­pen­dence. A Pak­istani im­plo­sion so closely linked to Afghanistan events would mean that coun­try of 200 mil­lion peo­ple would be­come an even more fer­tile breed­ing ground for ter­ror­ists. Fur­ther­more, its neigh­bor In­dia, with an even larger do­mes­tic Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, would not be able to sta­bi­lize its western bor­der. In fact, Pak­istani eth­nic and re­gional dis­in­te­gra­tion would be a threat to In­dian unity.

That is only part of the still in­cal­cu­la­ble price for pre­cip­i­tous U.S. with­drawal, coun­ter­ing all those very good ar­gu­ments for a hasty re­treat that are tempt­ing the Amer­i­can public and those run­ning for high of­fice.

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