Whatever President Obama may have thought he was doing in his June 22 speech on troop reductions in Afghanistan, his remarks will be remembered as the point at which America decided it was time to come home. Over the next 15 months or so, a third of the U.S. forces currently in the country will depart, resulting in a much-diminished pace of military activity. Even before the troop reductions were announced, the Pentagon was planning to cease U.S. participation in major combat operations during 2014. So the end of America’s longest war is fast approaching.
President Obama offered several reasons for why it is time to commence troop reductions. First, “the tide of war is receding.” Second, U.S. forces have made impressive progress in dismembering Al Qaeda. Third, overseas wars are costly and the U.S. must turn to its own economic recovery. The president’s critics see a different agenda driving the drawdown, starting with the fact that Mr. Obama is seeking reelection only months after the announced cuts are completed. They detect a lack of presidential leadership on the war that could squander hard-won gains, and hint the White House is simply responding to opinion polls that show deteriorating support for the military campaign.
Notice that these explanations, both pro and con, are mostly about us. The role that Afghans may have played in leading the president to decide on withdrawal barely gets mentioned. But the real reason Washington wants to depart is that its leaders now understand the limitations of the Afghans as allies and nation-builders. Most Americans have only the vaguest notion of who the Afghans are, just as they had little understanding of the Vietnamese, Somalis, Slavs and Iraqis who populated other recent battlefields where U.S. forces have fought. After ten years of counter-insurgency warfare, though, senior U.S. leaders know the Afghans all too well, and they have figured out that Afghanistan is not the kind of stuff from which happy endings can be fashioned.
A few salient facts about the country are in order. Afghanistan’s per capita GDP is about two-percent of America’s, and according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 97 percent of economic activity is tied to the U.S. military presence or international aid. The country’s biggest export is opium. Its biggest import is weapons. Nearly half the population is under the age of 15, and among those who are 15 or older, three-quarters can’t read or write (including seven out of eight women). The polyglot culture is fractured among communities speaking three major languages and 30 minor ones.
Afghan society is characterized by extreme poverty and widespread criminality. The government is weak and corrupt. There are chronic shortages of housing, jobs, electricity and medical care. If you think this sounds too harsh, don’t blame me: I’m quoting from the CIA’s World Factbook entry on Afghanistan. It is very depressing reading, and proof that Afghanistan does not have what it takes to be a self-sustaining democracy.
In other words, there was a reason why Osama bin Laden sought sanctuary in Afghanistan in 1996, and it wasn’t the weather. He knew the country was so isolated, primitive and divided that a small amount of money could buy him all the protection he needed. Having now killed him and two-thirds of his lieutenants over the last two years, the Obama Administration realizes that’s probably the most it can hope for from such an inhospitable place. Economic growth and political stability are not feasible unless America sticks around forever, buying off the warlords and injecting billions of (borrowed) dollars into a backward economy.
The problem here isn’t lack of American resolve. U.S. forces have remained in places such as Germany and South Korea for generations, even when the number of American lives at risk was far greater than the losses incurred in Afghanistan. But there were major economic and security benefits to those commitments, and politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington have begun to doubt the value of remaining in Afghanistan. Even the geography works against us.
So Washington is moving on. It has had enough of Mr. Karzai and the warlords and the opium growers and the ISI interlopers who have made our mission there even harder than it needed to be. The U.S. intelligence community and special operations forces will continue to wage a vigorous campaign against the remnants of Al Qaeda, but the period of large-scale U.S. military activity in Southwest Asia is coming to a close. A consensus is emerging that America has done what it needed to do in Afghanistan, and now it is time for the locals to start looking out for themselves.