Vail Valley Voices: After bin Laden
May 20, 2011
Osama Bin Laden’s death is starting to raise questions across the American public about whether the United States should completely remove now, or expedite its military engagement from Afghanistan. The rationale is that the main reason the U.S. invaded Afghanistan was to capture or kill the al-Qaida leader; bin Laden is dead, it’s time to leave.
It’s not that simple – withdrawing is a mistake.
The 9/11 attacks were not the first time Afghanistan was at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. The south Asian nation first caught Washington’s attention in the 1980s. The Reagan administration funneled arms to the precursors of al-Qaida, the Mujahedeen, in their fight against the Russians in the 1980s. The Russians lost, and the U.S. disengaged from the area. A civil war ensued after Moscow’s departure, the Taliban rose, and took control of Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida established its main operational base in Afghanistan after it and the Taliban aligned after the 1990s – the roots of Sept. 11 were planted. The pre-9/11 Afghanistan allowed al-Qaida operatives to plan and initiate the worst terrorist attack in history. Afghanistan re-emerged as a priority in American national security circles after the Sept. 11 tragedy.
A key reason the United States invaded Afghanistan was to neutralize the conditions that allowed al-Qaida to establish a base for terrorist operations. Part of the mission was to capture or kill bin Laden. His death did not degrade the circumstances that allowed al-Qaida to flourish; withdrawing in the current environment will allow those conditions to resurface.
Afghanistan is in a socio-political-economic transition. A lot of progress has occurred in the last decade. The U.S. and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force have taken significant steps to address many of the problems which led to the Taliban’s and al-Qaida’s ascension. The Afghanistan mission suffered a major setback when the Bush administration launched the Iraq war. The conflict diverted valuable resources from the Afghan theater. The U.S. and NATO had severely degraded the Taliban prior to Iraq; it rebounded, subsequently. The Taliban is now a major threat to Afghanistan’s stability and future.
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The situation is complicated by Pakistan.
Islamabad is a key Washington ally in Afghanistan; Pakistan also pursues its own interests at Washington’s expense sometimes. A strong argument is that Pakistan selectively assists the United States. Islamabad will capture and/or kill Taliban or al-Qaida elements when it is in Pakistan’s strategic interests. It will avoid those actions when Islamabad believes those pursuits could incite instability within Pakistan. Islamabad will also overlook the issue when it enhances Pakistan’s leverage over Afghanistan, or counters India’s policy in the south Asian nation, Kashmir, or other parts of the Indian subcontinent. All of which occasionally transpires at the expense of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan.
An example is seen in bin Laden’s death. U.S. policymakers discovered bin Laden lived a short distance from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, possibly for several years. The discovery is creating an awkward situation for Pakistan-U.S. relations. Islamabad-Washington ties may be further strained if it is learned Pakistan was aware of bin Laden’s status years ago.
The United States is uninterested in conquering Afghanistan. Controlling the south Asian country is historically futile. It’s a lesson Alexander the Great, the British, and the Russians, to name a few, learned. American policymakers understand history’s teachings.
The United States realizes that preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven requires a multitude of elements, not just counter-terrorism operations. The other components entail creating a police force that can neutralize the Taliban; establishing a viable, respectable government representing Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups ranging from the Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, and many others; forming a strong education system that reduces the nation’s high illiteracy rate, includes women, and is devoid of the distorted teachings of Islam advocated by the Taliban; plus finally providing an agricultural crop substitute that is more revenue-producing than opium. None of these are easy; all are time-consuming.
These are several of many challenges facing Afghanistan. The country risks slipping into same anarchy it has experienced for centuries, if these issues are not addressed. Achieving those tasks also requires dealing with Pakistan and its complex, intricately linked interests in Afghanistan. It’s a monumental undertaking the U.S. commander for Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, realizes – a task he believes will take at least a generation to accomplish. It’s also an endeavor that is worth completing, regardless of its length.
Leaving Afghanistan without fully or partially achieving the above objectives risks restoring the Taliban’s dominance over Afghanistan – and possibly re-establishing a terrorist haven for the rebirth of a post-bin Laden al-Qaida. It’s a scenario the Sept. 11 victims will scream out in horror against from their divine resting places.
Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Email him at email@example.com.