It is crunch time on Afghanistan, so here’s my vote: We need to be thinking about how to reduce our footprint and our goals there in a responsible way, not dig in deeper. We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan.
I base this conclusion on three principles. First, when I think back on all the moments of progress in that part of the world — all the times when a key player in the Middle East actually did something that put a smile on my face — all of them have one thing in common: America had nothing to do with it.
America helped build out what they started, but the breakthrough didn’t start with us. We can fan the flames, but the parties themselves have to light the fires of moderation. And whenever we try to do it for them, whenever we want it more than they do, we fail and they languish.
The Camp David peace treaty was not initiated by Jimmy Carter. Rather, the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, went to Jerusalem in 1977 after Israel’s Moshe Dayan held secret talks in Morocco with Sadat aide Hassan Tuhami. Both countries decided that they wanted a separate peace — outside of the Geneva comprehensive framework pushed by Mr. Carter.
The Oslo peace accords started in Oslo — in secret 1992-93 talks between the P.L.O. representative, Ahmed Qurei, and the Israeli professor Yair Hirschfeld. Israelis and Palestinians alone hammered out a broad deal and unveiled it to the Americans in the summer of 1993, much to Washington’s surprise.
The U.S. surge in Iraq was militarily successful because it was preceded by an Iraqi uprising sparked by a Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who, using his own forces, set out to evict the pro-Al Qaeda thugs who had taken over Sunni towns and were imposing a fundamentalist lifestyle. The U.S. surge gave that movement vital assistance to grow. But the spark was lit by the Iraqis.
The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon, the Green Revolution in Iran and the Pakistani decision to finally fight their own Taliban in Waziristan — because those Taliban were threatening the Pakistani middle class — were all examples of moderate, silent majorities acting on their own.
The message: “People do not change when we tell them they should,” said the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum. “They change when they tell themselves they must.”
And when the moderate silent majorities take ownership of their own futures, we win. When they won’t, when we want them to compromise more than they do, we lose. The locals sense they have us over a barrel, so they exploit our naïve goodwill and presence to loot their countries and to defeat their internal foes.
That’s how I see Afghanistan today. I see no moderate spark. I see our secretary of state pleading with President Hamid Karzai to re-do an election that he blatantly stole. I also see us begging Israelis to stop building more crazy settlements or Palestinians to come to negotiations. It is time to stop subsidizing their nonsense. Let them all start paying retail for their extremism, not wholesale. Then you’ll see movement.
What if we shrink our presence in Afghanistan? Won’t Al Qaeda return, the Taliban be energized and Pakistan collapse? Maybe. Maybe not. This gets to my second principle: In the Middle East, all politics — everything that matters — happens the morning after the morning after. Be patient. Yes, the morning after we shrink down in Afghanistan, the Taliban will celebrate, Pakistan will quake and bin Laden will issue an exultant video.
And the morning after the morning after, the Taliban factions will start fighting each other, the Pakistani Army will have to destroy their Taliban, or be destroyed by them, Afghanistan’s warlords will carve up the country, and, if bin Laden comes out of his cave, he’ll get zapped by a drone.
My last guiding principle: We are the world. A strong, healthy and self-confident America is what holds the world together and on a decent path. A weak America would be a disaster for us and the world. China, Russia and Al Qaeda all love the idea of America doing a long, slow bleed in Afghanistan. I don’t.
The U.S. military has given its assessment. It said that stabilizing Afghanistan and removing it as a threat requires rebuilding that whole country. Unfortunately, that is a 20-year project at best, and we can’t afford it. So our political leadership needs to insist on a strategy that will get the most security for less money and less presence. We simply don’t have the surplus we had when we started the war on terrorism after 9/11 — and we desperately need nation-building at home. We have to be smarter. Let’s finish Iraq, because a decent outcome there really could positively impact the whole Arab-Muslim world, and limit our exposure elsewhere. Iraq matters.
Yes, shrinking down in Afghanistan will create new threats, but expanding there will, too. I’d rather deal with the new threats with a stronger America.