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Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

There was some public debate recently as to whether America could continue its military presence in Afghanistan. President Trump decided to consult with his generals and then decided to keep us there and even add a few thousand troops. The idea is to shift away towards nation-building and re-focus on defeating terrorist threats to the West.

Various people are rather unhappy about US troops still being there after first being sent in late 2001 (following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack); they call it the “never ending war“. It made a fair amount of sense for US forces to root Al Qaeda out of its secure hiding spots in the Afghan mountains, right after we lost almost 3,000 lives from an Al Qaeda plot. However, a second phase of the Afghanistan mission eventually developed, focusing upon the pro-radical Islamic Taliban political / military movement in Afghanistan. This second phase focused both on degrading the Taliban’s military strength, and in denying its political strength by building an alternative nation-state more in keeping with western democratic traditions.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Taliban, which had gained control of the Afghan national government, was and remains a home-grown movement focusing mostly on Afghanistan, versus international Islamic conquest as with radical group like Al Qaeda. The US under President Bush (the second) and then President Obama tried with some success to keep the Taliban from ruling Afghanistan. Doing so would help keep Al Qaeda or a similar radical Islamist movement (such as ISIS) from setting up shop once again in the strategic, well hidden mountains and valleys of that nation.

Unfortunately, the mission of eliminating or taming the Taliban and supporting a democratic government turned out to be a lot harder than we thought. In fact, it turned out to look a good bit like what the US went through in Vietnam in the late 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s (although it involves a lot fewer casualties, thank goodness). The Vietcong had deep roots in South Vietnam, and despite all of our military firepower and socioeconomic “nation-building” exercises, the US eventually gave up and let the “communist” movement have Vietnam. We had some sort of military presence in Vietnam from 1955 to 1973, about 18 years. Our Afghan commitment is now hitting 16 years. Is it worth continuing it even at a relatively low level, given that the goal of eradicating the Taliban or taming them politically is probably not attainable anytime in the foreseeable future?

We’ve kept a nominal democratic government afloat in Afghanistan since 2001, although the Taliban continues to rule a lot of territory, especially in the Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border. This is not unlike what happened in Vietnam from 1963-1973, although it took a lot more American casualties and firepower to keep the nominally democratic Republic of South Vietnam from being overrun by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. We seem able to keep a cooperative government and a military presence in Afghanistan “on the cheap” compared with Vietnam (although there were still 14 US military deaths in Afghanistan in 2016, although this was down from 22 in 2015 and 54 in 2014, and a good bit fewer than the peak 496 Americans lost in 2010). But why, given that the Taliban isn’t going away anytime soon? It it worth the price?

A US military officer in charge of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan says that will take $6 billion per year from international sources including the USA for the indefinite future to sustain the Afghan military (and thus prevent government collapse). The US plans to spend $4.3 billion to sustain the Afghan army and police in 2017, and total US aid to Afghanistan including non-military spending is about $5.8 billion. By comparison, the entire Afghan economy’s 2016 gross domestic product in US dollars was about $19.5 billion, and its entire governmental tax collections amount to about $2 billion.

Afghanistan’s own spending on its military has bounced from around 1 to 2.5% of its GDP over the past decade, i.e. less than 0.5 billion USD per year. Also, Afghanistan’s total international trade amounts to about $5 billion per year. In sum, the international community is not getting a whole lot of economic return for its 6 billion per year. If we withdrew and the Taliban took over, Afghanistan would revert to a poor country with a weak military force. So why do we keep spending around $6 billion per year and lose a couple dozen US troops per year by being there?

The strongest reason is that Afghanistan is the one place where the US and NATO can maintain a strong presence in the Middle East and keep an eye on what is going on in Afghanistan and beyond its borders, i.e. maintain a higher level of intelligence and surveillance. No other country in the region is going to allow an extensive NATO operation. Also, those remote mountain valleys are good hiding spots and base camps for expanding radical Islamist movements, as Al Qaeda knew and now ISIS is trying to exploit as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq.

Given those facts, some level of continued military involvement in Afghanistan may be worth it even though we know that it’s not about defeating the Taliban through firepower or nation-building. For our money, we get to prop up a nominal democratic regime and hold the Taliban at bay, while that regime allows us to stay and to keep an eye on what is going on with the various Islamic forces and movements in Afghanistan. It also allows us a close-up view of Afghanistan’s neighboring states, including Pakistan and Iran (and India, China and Russia aren’t that far away either). Afghanistan has historically been a strategic place in a complicated world.

Vietnam, by contrast, was a very localized situation; the US’s biggest mistake in the 60’s was imagining Vietnam’s international importance to be much greater than it really was. We thought that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, it would give the Chinese and Russians an opportunity to expand their strength and threaten the rest of southeast Asia, including Thailand and the Philippines. The reality was that the Vietnamese didn’t want Russian or Chinese troops on their land any more than they wanted Americans, and they weren’t going to let them in. Afghanistan by contrast is a more remote place where international threats can fester, whoever is running the national government. (E.g., ISIS has gained a solid foothold in Afghanistan even though both the national government AND the Taliban are fighting to force them out!). So, there is a fairly cogent argument to continue US operations in Afghanistan (even if I’m not in agreement with Trump’s plans to boost our troop levels and get more involved in the fighting, as we were 5 to 10 years ago).

There is one lesson from Vietnam that should be remembered with regard to Afghanistan. For the US public, a 15 + year war is really extraordinary; we don’t have the patience for long-term wars. But local movements like the Vietcong and now ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. do have that patience. For them, struggling in battle for 20 or 30 years is to be expected. It’s unrealistic for the US public to think that a solution to hostile Islamic-based military and terrorist networks can be had in short order. If Vietnam taught us anything, it is that small regionally and ideologically based networks take much longer to fight than a bigger and more powerful established nation-state. Bottom line, don’t expect the end of US military presence (and involvement in hostile action) in Afghanistan anytime soon.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:16 pm      

  1. Jim, Once again I can add little, if anything, to your astute analysis of the whole business re Afghanistan.

    I sometimes have tho’t that it’s a foolish thing for the U.S. (and/or Russia) to think that somehow or other they will win the hearts and minds of Afghanis. It’s a country that’s the ideal place for a political or religious faction to hunker down and know that no matter what happens, nobody can ever really remove them from the hills and valleys and hidden caves of the country. Whether it be Al-Quaeda (strange how that name was at one time a commonplace and now has not been heard of in some time and seems somehow “strange”) or ISIS or any faction within Afghanistan can simply remain secluded within the mountains and secret caves of the country, thus making sure any “outsider” coming in such as Russia and/or the U.S. is doomed to defeat.

    As you point out, the country is the link between the West and the East; and it seems inevitable that countries will want to try to “control” it.

    One might think that the past would have taught the political leaders of the West (here read the U.S. and President Trump, to say nothing of Russia, altho Russia) that the best thing to do is withdraw from the country, which President Obama worked on, successfully, I think, altho I’m sure anyone who wants to criticize his withdrawal from Afghanistan will find plenty to gripe about. Yet it seems Trump does not seem to recognize the problems of returning to a war best left to die out (at least as far as the U.S. is concerned).

    Trump seems to be willing to not only risk returning to war in Afghanistan but also seems unable to fathom the gravity of the problem of North Korea and their belligerent approach to the world in general just for the sake of proving their strength. However, I recently read somewhere (again, my references are sorely lacking in scholarship) that North Korea for all it’s threat may be more interested in selling what it has developed in rockets and ICBMs to others who may be interested. (Here read Iran, for instance, or any other countries interested in “miniaturizing: nuclear weapons.)

    One wonders just how these men, on both sides of the issue, regard human life. They seem to be willing to allow for any number of lives to be lost to acquire some little power for themselves. Given the gravity and destruction of such weapons, such leaders could end up with no one to lead at all.

    I tend to doubt that Vietnam taught Trump anything at all. He never got near any military at all, to say nothing whatsoever of going to war. Thus, much of what he says and does seems to be “play acting”; another such leader is Kim Jong-Un. (Age seems to have no meaning in this lack of understanding these 2 men exhibit.)

    Perhaps the best that can be done is simply to hope for the best in these situations; and/or if one has any religious bent, prayer for a sensible outcome regardless of who is in charge might be also be employed. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 14, 2017 @ 9:03 am

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