The Korea Solution
At New Atlanticist Bernard Finel proposes an alternative to the counter-insurgency strategy we have now apparently adopted in Afghanistan. His proposal consists of six components:
- Withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan.
- Provide substantial assistance to the Afghan government as and after we withdraw.
- Re-affirm our commitment to removing Taliban or related elements from Afghanistan.
- Work to resolve tensions between India and Pakistan.
- Implement an asylum program for Afghans that have assisted us there.
- Work towards clarifying the obligations of states under international law with respect to terrorist organizations operating on their soil.
I think that Bernard’s prescription relies on a misreading of American political and diplomatic history, viz.:
Apologists for Richard Nixon have long argued that he negotiated a honorable peace in Vietnam that was later undermined by Congress’ unwillingness to tolerate a bombing campaign in support of the South when North Vietnam invaded in 1975. But the fact is that dragging out our commitment until 1973 was what made effective post-withdrawal assistance impossible. If Nixon had gotten us out in 1969, it is possible that enough residual public support for the war would have remained to allow us to continue to use air power in defense of our allies in South Vietnam. In short, the risks of staying until public support collapses completely are significant. The sooner we get our forces out, the more likely I believe we are to be able to sustain an active policy in support of the Karzai regime or a legitimate successor.
Quite to the contrary I think that once American forces have left Afghanistan, American interest in the country will wane, aid will dry up, and, should the Taliban re-establish themselves in the country, it will be very difficult to make a case for a second intervention there.
To understand why that last might be, imagine that you’re President Obama. You’ve already explained to the American people that there’s nothing more our forces can accomplish in Afghanistan. Now explain why you were wrong.
Is there a precedent for Americans, having withdrawn military forces from a country in which we have little or no strategic interest, re-invading? I can’t think of one.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we repeatedly re-invaded Haiti, even administering the country for a time. I believe this was due to a combination of our interests in preserving Western Hemisphere independence from European interference and the encouragement of business interests there. After the conclusion of the Great War it took a combination of threat to the United Kingdom, the Third Reich’s assault on the Soviet Union, and direct threats to the American mainland to induce us to go to war with Germany again. It required a serious threat to our interests.
I’d like to propose a third alternative: the Korea solution. Perhaps we should maintain a force in Afghanistan with a greatly reduced mission, large enough to be daunting, small enough not to be deemed an occupation. This force would have the dual effect of enabling us to prevent Al Qaeda from establishing itself in the country again while giving us a stake in ongoing aid to the Kabul government.
The American experience, illuminated by the examples of Germany and Japan following World War II and Korea is that we have considerable patience, Sitzfleisch, when we have such a stake and virtually none when we don’t.
The only other realistic alternative I can come up with to a lengthy counter-insurgency, expensive in lives and money, or the decidedly unrealistic one of deterrence without a credible deterrent and aid without a stake that Bernard proposes would be to cultivate support for the acceptability of massive bombing campaigns as a means of dealing with essentially ungoverned areas in which terrorist organizations have found a home.
I think the Korea solution is significantly more humane albeit a hard sell.