Saturday, June 25, 2011

We're not leaving Afghanistan yet. But we should.

Have you heard? The war in Afghanistan is coming to an end! We killed bin Laden, and now we're finally leaving!

Or, well, maybe not.

This graph, from here, might be one of the more straightforwardly devastating rebuttals I've seen. You can't imply that we're leaving Afghanistan by 2012, if at the end of 2012, if there are 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, most of whom you sent there yourself.

I've always been ambivalent about the Afghan war -- I'll be the first to admit that I don't understand enough about the country to know when anything has been accomplished there. That makes it really difficult for me to talk about how long we should stay, or when we should pull out. After bin Laden's death, however, I've become quite convinced that, whatever the circumstances on the ground, now is the time to leave.

I'm basing this less on geopolitics and more on politics of the ordinary sort. The capture or killing of bin Laden might have been the only concrete goal the war ever had. The other goals -- suppressing the Taliban, preventing the further spread of radicalism into Pakistan, enforcing some rough facsimile of peace -- are less items to check off a list than plates that need to be kept spinning in the air. And no matter how well we're keeping them going (not very, by most accounts), the one thing all these goals have in common is that they're always going to be easier to accomplish when there are US troops on the ground. In other words, the argument that "We can't leave now, because everything will fall to pieces without the US military" might very well be true. The problem is that it'll always be true.

With that in mind, the death of bin Laden represents the final point where war skeptics can look at hawks and say, "Look, we finished what we came here to finish." It was the only thing left for us to do that no one can argue will be undone after we're gone. If we decide that bin Laden's death isn't sufficient reason to leave the country, then there are only two avenues for withdrawal left: waiting for some kind of victory, which absolutely no one seems to believe is forthcoming, or waiting for public opinion to force an end to the conflict.

Those of us waiting for a shift in public opinion might be waiting a very long time indeed. Despite the constant comparisons, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Public opinion might be against the war but it's not an issue that has raised the ire of the population. For me, the graph above really drove home that point. The number of troops in Afghanistan increased by a factor of three in the Obama administration. But while the number of Americans in the war climbed dramatically, the war has remained completely notional to me. I don't really know anyone in Afghanistan and it's been many years since I've met anyone who joined the military. Troop levels can go up, down, or wherever, and without the New York Times to tell me about it, I'd never have the slightest idea. The war may as well be happening on Mars.

While I don't want to generalize too much, I don't think my lack of first-hand experience with the Afghan war is unusual. I don't mean to downplay the unimaginable havoc the war can wreak on the lives of the people involved, but to highlight that in our society there's not much overlap between those people and the people dwelling in the halls of power. I don't just mean congresspeople or Washingtonians, either -- I mean the academic elite, the moneyed elite, the influential professional classes, business leadership, entrepreneurs, the works. That's not an indictment of, well, anyone at all -- just an observation that the financial and social pressures that push people into military service mostly weigh down on a limited segment of society.

If we're expecting a revolt of the poor and politically powerless to change minds in D.C., we might as well also hope for the unconditional surrender of the Taliban and the full flowering of social democracy in Kandahar.

Bin Laden's death might be the best chance we get to dial down the war for a long, long time. I don't want US soldiers to be in Afghanistan for a long, long time. It's either now or never.

I do have to applaud, at least, the administration's rhetoric on the issue. They've acknowledged, so far as I can tell, the reality that military action in Afghanistan can and should eventually conclude. I truly believe that's a major step forward -- it helps transform the question from "How do we win the war?" to "How do we end the war?" It's important for war opponents to reward progress on this front. So long as Afghan skeptics will accept nothing short of total unilateral withdrawal, starting yesterday, the hawks look more reasonable by comparison. Politicians need to know they can win support by taking rational, feasible steps to downgrade the American presence in Afghanistan, or else they'll be forced to look for their support on the other side on the debate.

But still. That doesn't mean that leaving 65,000 troops in Afghanistan is a withdrawal. Precisely because most people don't have any personal sense of the scale of the conflict in Afghanistan, it's important that the administration be honest about what it's doing there. Ending part of its own troop surge, and then acting like we're pulling out for good, just won't do.

So in the end I have to say: not good enough. This process needs to move faster, before the window created by bin Laden's death closes completely, and Obama is left once again vying with generals who promise that they can keep the Taliban at bay, if only they had a few more troops. If we can't have our soldiers out of Afghanistan by 2012, let's at least hope that, by then, they'll know when they get to go home.

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