In the Arena

Afghan Reality

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Two more Americans were killed today in Afghanistan–in Zhari district, just outside Kandahar, a place I know well, having embedded twice with U.S. units there. This has become business as usual in Afghanistan, especially since U.S. troops accidentally burned some Qurans a few weeks ago. It is, of course, infuriating. And it raises a larger question: why are we still hanging around there, now that Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda pretty much obliterated? Fareed Zakaria gets it right in this column today.

We have two remaining national interests in Afghanistan. The first is the terrorist breeding ground across the Pakistani border. The second is a moral commitment to prevent the Taliban from retaking the entire country. I suspect that the latter is easier to handle than the former: As Zakaria notes, the Afghan National Army is, essentially, the old Northern Alliance on steroids. We are the steroids. And while I’m not sure that a continuing investment of $12 billion a year for the ANA is feasible, we can certainly stay involved on some level of funding and training–and it’s a pretty safe bet that the non-Pashtuns who make up 90% of the ANA will be more than happy to continue their centuries-long fight against the Pashtuns, and prevent the Taliban from retaking Kabul. (It would be nice if Pakistan stopped funding the Taliban, but that seems a remote possibility at the moment.) Aside from this military support, we should have as little as possible to do with the corrupt and incompetent Karzai government.

(MORECrunch Time for Defense Authorization and Military Detention)

The more difficult goal is to keep monitoring, and attacking, the terrorist training bases in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands. It would be nice if we could keep a presence at Kandahar Air Field, and run drones and special operations from there. But that may no longer be possible in the long term, either. I’m not sure of the logistics, but this mission might be undertaken, in a more limited way, from our naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

In the end, our interests in this region have everything to do with the deadly rivalry between India and Pakistan.We’ve made offer after offer to the Pakistanis to keep Afghanistan a neutral buffer zone, free from Indian interference, if Pakistan stopped funding the Taliban. That hasn’t worked, to say the least. Pakistani-funded terrorists continue to kill American troops on a near-daily basis. The Pakistanis should now understand that they’ve left us no choice but to ask India, Russia and–as Zakaria notes–Iran (tacitly) to help fund the ANA and keep the Taliban boxed in the south and east of the country.

(MORE: Tipping Point?)

In sum, we should begin a steady withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. There is nothing more that a large NATO troop presence can accomplish there. The Pakistanis should understand that the consequences of our withdrawal will probably include a closer US-India relationship. This is likely to heighten tensions in the region, but it has been made necessary by Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. We should still, however, work to encourage, and perhaps broker, the larger deal between India and Pakistan that is necessary to bring real peace to the region.

We have done what we set out to do in Afghanistan. We’ve destroyed al-Qaeda and killed bin Laden. Both Presidents Bush and Obama pursued this goal inefficiently–it was a special ops job from the start–and we should have learned a valuable lesson after a decade of bloodshed: that the era of massive neo-colonialist occupations of hostile lands is over.