By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Lost Will on Afghanistan

Columnist George Will today calls for the near-total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, writing:

[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Will’s column is not a huge surprise — he’s been offering previews on ABC’s “This Week.” His assessment matters because of his status as a conservative icon, although, as a traditional conservative rather than a neocon, he was never as gung-ho about war in the Middle East as, say, William Kristol.

Giving Will’s views even more resonance is an especially bleak assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, who is calling for a far greater commitment of U.S. forces.

President Obama faces an incredibly difficult dilemma. He campaigned on a platform of shifting resources from Iraq to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguing that the move was necessary to deny Al Qaeda a refuge. Yet that’s a dubious proposition, given that Al Qaeda could move anywhere. Indeed, the only reason it’s in Afghanistan is because it was chased out of Sudan.

But before you say we should let Afghanistan go, remember that Pakistan is unstable and armed with nuclear weapons.

Is Will right? I don’t know. I do know that if Obama can meet American security needs without putting American troops in harm’s way, then he should do so as quickly as possible.

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  1. mike_b1

    It’s a lot cheaper in all ways to fight a war on someone else’s turf. If the goal — stated or otherwise — is to ensure nuclear weapons stay out of the hands of Al-Queda, then the cost of committing tens of thousands of soldiers for an undetermined length of time is preferable to pulling out and ceding that barrier to Pakistan.

  2. Michael Pahre

    Dan, you’re well off-the-mark on this assessment: “…given that Al Qaeda could move anywhere.”

    While Al Qaeda’s cells can operate virtually anywhere, the major bases and camps they have cannot. They exist in only a few states that have (a) predominantly Muslim populations, and (b) lack of central government authority (aka “lawlessness”). (In many cases you can add (c) nascent anti-Americanism.)

    Hence Al Qaeda’s movements into Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq after the U.S. invasion, parts of Pakistan — as well as more recently in Yemen and Somalia.

    They have been thrown out of a number of countries, and are hated by the governments in a number of Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East, such as Iran and Egypt; those are examples of places that Al Qaeda could not move in order to set up their camps and bases of operations.

    There is a big distinction between Al Qaeda’s cells and their camps/bases.

    Back to the topic of your post: I doubt that Will will pull of much support from the noisy conservative movement. His proposal, if made by a Democrat, would be described as “soft on terrorism” and “surrendering to the terrorists”. But columns like his sell newspapers and bring him attention.

  3. Brad Deltan

    Dan, I’ll throw this out there to challenge a basic assumption: that the military is, in any way, delivering on its alleged role of “keeping America safe”.

    Honestly, I think that’s a very dubious assertion. Since World War II, our military seems to have done little other than get the US into quicksand conflicts that ultimately either made things worse or, at best, ended up back where things started. (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, most of South and Central America, Beirut, Iraq, etc)

    Here’s the thing: with a rather poor track record of success, the military has succeeded admirably at spending insane amounts of money in the process. Money that we’ve rather amply seen is desperately needed stateside: roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, healthcare, levees, etc.

    Personally, in my uninformed opinion, I liken our “military keeping us safe” to airport security: it’s totally inept, it doesn’t do anything to keep us safe, it costs a fortune, it makes life more difficult for everyone involved, and most of the people who run it are either crooks or a**holes. But it does a fabulous job of LOOKING LIKE it’s “keeping us safe” so it’s politically untouchable.

    Frankly, it is worth hundreds of billions of dollars EVERY YEAR to protect the perhaps 10,000 Americans who might conceivably die each year from terrorist attacks? If so, why aren’t we spending that kind of money on any one of three dozen ailments that kill far, far more Americans every year?

    BTW, the “Pakistan has nukes and is unstable” argument is thoroughly specious. What exactly can we do that really will prevent Pakistan from using a nuke if the right handful of people decide they want to use it? That’s right: absolutely nothing. Nor could we hope to stop them from successfully smuggling said nuke into the US and detonating it; our borders are too porous and that’s not a bad thing.

    Realistically the sole effective (and I use the term loosely) thing the US could do about Pakistan nukes is remind them that we can drop about 1000 ICBM’s and lay waste to their entire country if they try it. The old “Mutually Assured Destruction” routine. Obviously that will have limited deterrence against most of the real crazy people out there…but I imagine it might give other crazies pause if the US were to be nuked and then responded in kind.

    Granted, the prospect of a nuke going off in Times Square is not pleasant. But given how thoroughly impossible it would be to prevent it from happening should the right (or wrong) someone(s) want to do so…I’d rather see the untold billions we waste on “looking good” spent on something more useful instead.

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