THE RIGHT MOVE IN AFGHANISTAN: THE START OF A NEW STRATEGY BUT NOT RETREAT

U.S. Marines prepare to board transport plane in Helmand Province, Afghanistan (Photo: Department of Defense)
U.S. Marines prepare to board transport plane in Helmand Province, Afghanistan (Photo: Department of Defense)

By Harry C. Blaney III

Just as the Americans and the British withdraw combat forces from Helmand Province already we are hearing more partisan criticism of this move as if this was not already announced and debated. President Obama promised that we would withdraw our combat troops by the end of 2014 but would leave in place training, intelligence, some logistic and aviation support capability for Afghan forces in a fight that must in the end be theirs.

We have, to the credit of President Obama and Secretary Kerry, worked with the Afghan leadership to establish a democratic, broad based government and continue our work to improve the lives of the Afghan people. There is an enormous consensus that the time had come to make the conflict in Afghanistan that of the Afghan people under a new and hopefully stronger and less corrupt governing administration.

The alternative, which the Republican war hawks seem to desire, is an “endless war” with more U.S. casualties and deeper morass. American public opinion supports the president’s move strongly. The closing of U.S. Marine Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion for the British forces, reaffirms the White House’s resolution to end combat operations in Afghanistan. President Obama made his case to the American people in the last election and has early on been steadfast on his commitment. The U.S. military has put in place the necessary action both of withdrawal of most troops but also the resources to support the new government as it takes on the main responsibilities for the security of the country.

The question is not whether we support a safe and prosperous Afghan society, but rather after a decade plus of deep and costly military involvement, we need to change the landscape to one in which those that know the terrain and their country carry out the burden of making it safe. We are not abandoning the country, but rather making a necessary transition to a more long-term and sustainable model which at last gives real responsibility to the new government which was elected by the Afghan people and have the real responsibility and now key support to bring a measure of stability and security to Afghanistan.

This will be without a doubt a long-term effort and we should not expect overnight success. Indeed it is likely the Taliban will try to take advantage of this move, but they are not with the Afghan people who have spoken in their votes for a more unified and moderate nation rather than brutal rule by a radical Islamist group without pity for its people. The greatest help we can provide to the new government is not military but rather help in providing the Afghan people economic security and the sense that their government cares for them and their future and is not trying to rob them of their national wealth.

The solution to this conflict and the past poor performance by the old Afghan regime is to use American “soft power,” diplomacy, and a new model of effective development assistance that truly reaches the Afghan people. We do not need the old model of the Bush years of waste and a single-minded focus on military action which did not create an atmosphere of support for the citizens on the ground.

This will not be an easy task. It remains a difficult terrain as has been the case throughout the region’s history. If not now, with many areas safer than earlier to make that transition, when? For this the neoconservatives and the GOP hawks have no frank or decent answer. In Britain 68% of the public supports the withdrawal of their troops and most Americans would welcome the withdrawal of our active combat role. But of more importance is we are now thinking more intelligently rather than in a narrow vision of simply more war without any real focus and concentration on building a viable nation.    

Our brave combat troops deserve more than continued blind conflict without eventual results of long-term lasting success. Think about this as some lawmakers use the election to cry for more war and more deaths for our troops, We are likely going to hear more cries of “defeat’ or “surrender.” I suggest we stop and ask what the alterative looks like. Ask, what is the long-term interest of keeping our combat troops? There is “smart strategy” and there is indeed a “stupid strategy,” there is a wider fundamental view and there is a myopic one that is blind to realities, costs, and risks.

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