Commentary: Why We Cannot Leave
The death of Osama bin Laden has given those against the war in Afghanistan renewed vigor in their push to withdraw all American forces from the country. In addition to driving al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts into Pakistan, the United States has knocked off their heretofore invincible leader and financial patron.
Having sufficiently crippled al-Qaeda, the Americans can load up the MRAPS and leave the future of the country to be fought over in the snake pit of Afghan politics. These two reasons (the relocation of al-Qaeda and the internal character of the conflict) are sufficient cause for, as Leslie Gelb puts it in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal , the United States to declare “Mission Accomplished” and head home.
However, Mr. Gelb and the advocates of immediate withdrawal are guilty of a strategic misunderstanding of America’s reasons for invading Afghanistan. This failure is based on a misunderstanding of the original strategy put forth by the Bush administration in the nascent stages of the War on Terror. The withdrawal partisans understand this strategy to be “defeat al-Qaeda.” This is part of the strategy, but as President Bush and senior administration officials have said, the pre-eminent strategy was to prevent another attack on the scale of 9/11.
The best way to accomplish this objective in the most complete fashion possible is to eliminate the safe-havens from which attacks on the American homeland can be planned. Indeed, bringing security and the rule of law to Yemen, Somalia, and the Congo would be quite the accomplishment, and, despite all its wealth and the capabilities of its armed and diplomatic services, the United States cannot undertake nation-building operations wherever there is anarchy in the world. However, Afghanistan (and the northwestern tribal regions of Pakistan) is the pre-eminent region of concern at present because that is from where the most deadly attacks against the United States have originated. If the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, there is nothing to stop Ayman al-Zawahiri and his minions from traipsing across the Afghan-Pakistani border and waging war against the Afghan National Government and, more ominously, on the thousands of Afghans who threw their lot in with Americans who promised them a chance at self-determination. The “war on terror” is justifiably called “the long war,” and there is no guarantee that Afghanistan will be the last American nation-building adventure.
To accomplish this goal, it is not sufficient to drive al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and play “whack-a-mole” with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, using Predator drones in lieu of a mallet. Only a functioning Afghan government and a capable Afghan National Army can provide the security and rule of law necessary to prevent al-Qaeda and the Taliban from re-establishing themselves as a force capable of ruling Afghanistan.
There is no doubt that this mission will be costly in terms of time, treasure, and, sadly, lives. However, eliminating the sanctuaries from which attacks on American soil can be launched is paramount and we must vigorously pursue this mission. Mowing the weeds of terrorism is not sufficient to accomplish this task. We must sow salt in the Earth, as the Romans did after a conquest, to ensure that the weeds will not grow again.
Photo credit: Sgt. Daniel P. Shook, US Army