We Will Abandon Afghanistan

I don’t think that Michael O’Hanlon has gotten the memo:

U.S. officials may perceive the zero option as a smart negotiating tactic, but it actually reinforces the hedging behavior, especially in Pakistan, that allows the Taliban to maintain sanctuaries there. Pakistan’s intelligence services and military see the Taliban as their backup plan, should Afghanistan revert to civil war, or chaos, after a premature NATO pullout. Some in Pakistan challenge this approach, but most Pakistanis will see little reason to question their long-standing strategy as long as we keep talking about a zero option.

The United States would be much better served by declaring its desire to help Afghanistan, provided that Afghans do their part and have a serious election next year and that Karzai then step down as required by his country’s constitution (and as he has pledged to do). We need to help the Afghans with that process and avoid being bogged down in public squabbles that serve no constructive purpose.

It has been a foregone conclusion that we would “abandon” Afghanistan for years, possibly since we invaded. The alternative would have been a permanent military presence there, which would have been viewed widely as colonization both here and in Afghanistan, and that’s never been on the table.

At one point there was a very minor possibility that a small, compact force, focused on counter-terrorism and otherwise maintaining a low profile, as suggested by Rory Stewart among others might have happened.

As things are, particularly with the higher U. S. casualty count that followed the heightened operational tempo of the “Afghan Surge”, the American people are just tired of Afghanistan. Ongoing funding of the increasingly obviously corrupt and incompetent Afghan government will be an increasingly hard sell.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Terrorism, , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. James Joyner says:

    Quite right. As your scare quotes imply, we’re unlikely to completely “abandon” the country. But there’s only so much we can do and we’ve long since do’ed it.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I never like the formulation that there’s only so much we can do. I think there’s a great deal more we could do.

    We could make Genghis Kahn look like Jimmy Carter. We could turn Pashtunistan into a radioactive wasteland. We could blow up the mountain passes. We could sweep the Pashtuns into relocation camps. We have staggering, unparalleled power. We choose not to use it. We choose not to descend into savagery in order to dominate Afghanistan. It’s not helplessness, it’s a moral choice.

  3. Tyrell says:

    Unusual news article:”8 US Soldiers In Afghanistan Disappear While Digging Up 5,000 Year Old Flying Machine” Now there is suddenly an announcement of troop withdrawal. Coincidence?

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    should Afghanistan revert to civil war, or chaos, after a premature NATO pullout.

    Heh. It takes a special kind of person to say that leaving after 13 years is “premature”.

    @michael reynolds:

    We choose not to descend into savagery in order to dominate Afghanistan.

    You mean savagery like this?
    Afghan judges free three jailed for torture of child bride Sahar Gul

  5. stonetools says:

    Guess O’Hanlon doesn’t understand the concept of sunk costs.
    In any case, there will be continued economic and military aid to Afghanistan. That’s not “abandonment”.
    I will say that Afghanistan is still strategically relevant. Let’s not forget that 9/11 was launched from Afghanistan and the kill Bin Laden Operation was launched from Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean we need to have substantial military forces in Afghanistan.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: Right. We constrained by all manner of things, with our values among them. But, within the limits of our political realities, we pretty much exhausted our ability to do more. If we were willing to invest ten times the manpower and money and remain another thirty years, we could do a lot more. We ain’t.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Unusual news article:”8 US Soldiers In Afghanistan Disappear While Digging Up 5,000 Year Old Flying Machine” Now there is suddenly an announcement of troop withdrawal.

    You keep pushing this. Has this “news article” been reported on by a credible news organization?

  8. PD Shaw says:

    I’ve always been of the view that we would leave when we were asked. That meant that either a government found it useful for legitimizing their rule to tell us to leave, or a similar government imposed conditions on staying that were unreasonable to us. Barring that, I think we would stay in perpetuity if the domestic situation were inviting. I agree with stonetools that there are legitimate security interests in the area, which a presence in Afghanistan would serve as long as the costs were not too high.

  9. Gromitt Gunn says:

    It seems like one would have to be fairly delusional to term the end of a decade-plus occupation an “abandonment.”

  10. Pinky says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Yes and no. Try explaining to your wife that your leaving after 13 years isn’t abandonment. If the deal was to see them through to stability, then we’re leaving before we do that. I think a big problem was that we weren’t trying to move them to stability, but to a Western European-style government, with regions subordinate to a central national government located in the capital city. You don’t have to follow that model to be democratic. It’s the preferred model for outsiders because they can know exactly who they’re dealing with, and it fits their expectations. But it doesn’t necessarily fit a particular country’s history.

  11. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Pinky: Bull. Dubya was elected as an opponent of nation building. We went in to remove the Taliban and find OBL. Everything else has been mission creep.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    Oops wrong thread.

  13. JohnMcC says:

    Well, probably it would be somewhat more correct to say we’re likely to abandon Afghanistan ‘AGAIN’. We abandoned them when the Russians left. Then we abandoned them in favor of Operation Iraqi Freedom. An intelligent Afghan would have known it was only a matter of time and made his future plans accordingly.

  14. Pinky says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: I didn’t mean to imply anything about Bush’s election or our original thinking in getting involved in Afghanistan. (Actually, I didn’t think I did imply anything.) At some point between 2001 and today, we did take a “you break it, you bought it” approach. My main point, though, was that efforts to democratize Afghanistan didn’t have to move it toward the standard nation-state model, and I think we complicated things for ourselves without realizing it.

  15. Matt Bernius says:

    Very well stated.

    Unfortunately — as arguably is also the case with Iraq — the top architects of the “peace/reconstruction” were people committed to a belief that a Western Style democratic nation state is the only acceptable democracy and can be created anywhere regardless of history. That is one of the enduring disasters of the rise of neocons and a muscular form of American exceptionalism.

    Unfortunately, it’s also a vision that is apparently shared by many in the current administration as well.

    And as you put it, we broke it, we bough it. And though we might try and leave it, chances are (as with the last time we “bought” Afghanistan), we may find ourselves paying with interest for many years to come.

  16. Davebo says:

    At what point can we finally start ignoring, if not openly mocking O’Hanlon? A purported foreign policy wonk who has been totally wrong on every foreign policy issue he’s decided to spout out on?

    Hell, James was horribly wrong on Iraq but at least he’s “sort of” admitted his error. O’Hanlon on the other hand screws the pooch and then doubles down on the stupid each time.

    At what point do we as a nation start calling these guys what they are? Michael O’Hanlon who argued that Iraq would be a massive cluster fuk but that we should do it anyway.

  17. Davebo says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    The last time we “bought Afghanistan”?

    Seriously, using that metric we’ve bought just about every internal dispute within a country over the past 50 years.

  18. Brett says:

    O’Hanlon’s just a major pro-interventionist in general. I remember reading that short e-book he wrote about how to do defense cuts, and you could just tell from reading it that he absolutely loathed the idea of cutting back on either defense capabilities/spending, or on any form of US intervention abroad – but he was going to force himself to confront reality on it.

  19. Barry says:

    @stonetools: “Guess O’Hanlon doesn’t understand the concept of sunk costs.”

    O’Hanlon is a neocon war supporter – there are no costs to that crew of scum for wars. No matter how badly they go, these people will keep their jobs.

  20. Tyrell says:

    @anjin-san: Thanks for your interest in this amazing news.
    Most of what I have read is on you tube and I am in the process of further investigation. Here is the time line as best I know it: the 8 US soldiers disappear while examining some sort of ancient artifact. World leaders, including President Obama suddenly go to Afghanistan; the president announces huge troop withdrawal . Something doesn’t add up. I have contacted some military officials and they said that they will look into this and get back. I will pass on anything that I hear. It may just be nothing.
    I usually get my news from Mcneil/Lehrer, local tv, local am radio, amateur radio, and some magazines. I no longer watch network news or any of the news channels.

  21. anjin-san says:

    @ Tyrell

    Actually, I am not interested, I just sort of hoped you could be shamed into dropping this. We get enough fact-free screeds from the right without adding UFOs into the mix.

    Just FYI – a “timeline” is supposed to contain actual time/date information. There is also this thing called “supporting documentation” – a concept you appear to be unfamiliar with.

  22. Matt Bernius says:


    Most of what I have read is on you tube

    Wow, let the full implications of that sentence to sink in for a moment.

    Just when I thought your earlier comment that “And the Supreme Court needs to stick to putting criminals away instead of getting involved in people’s social life” was going to be the best thing I read from a commenter this week.

  23. Matt Bernius says:


    The last time we “bought Afghanistan”?

    Seriously, using that metric we’ve bought just about every internal dispute within a country over the past 50 years.

    Apparently you’ve not particular familiar with the history of Charlie Wilson’s little war. We invested a lot in an Afghan war once before only to cut and run when the objective was accomplished.

  24. nathan says:

    It’s nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you appear to be you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  25. Christopher says:

    As a supposedly civilized country the talk of an early pull-out is
    completely embarrassing, and more importantly a grave disservice to
    the blood and treasure expended by Afghans and ISAF already.
    This is apparently the same crowd of American isolationists who were part of the world community that turned its back on Afghanistan when we all truly had a chance to put Afghanistan back on its feet after the Soviet Union was expelled in 1989 however
    the world community turned their backs with predicable results.
    Regular Afghans, the bulk of the population, that have been longing
    for peace and stability since 1979, again are to be run off the road
    yet again according to this article by isolationists trying to
    rationalize a cut and run strategy that damages American and
    International community credibility. We are not in Afghanistan for
    the segment that doesn’t want us there so they can practice their
    draconian brutality outlined well in the movie the Kite Runner. We
    are there for the bulk of the population that do, despite some knee
    jerk negative stories that some like to dwell on as their excuse why
    they should be able to go home, put on their headsets, grab another
    beer and flip the channel so they don’t have to watch the Afghans as
    they inconveniently die in front of our TV screens. This, in a
    society that is becoming increasingly unable to delay our own self
    gratification, and overwhelmed by the preconceived value of our own
    opinions of ourselves

    So, what sort of people are we anyway? What do we stand for, if anything?
    It is how we meet these challenges, also guided by our conscience,
    that help to define who we are as a country and as a people guided by
    our conscience, as the foundation of what is truly important in life.

    With our sometimes hyper consumptive “me, me, me”societies in
    which we get so wrapped up in ourselves, this mission and seeing it
    through is beginning to remind us of the horse in the movie “Sea
    Biscuit”. At this point, it is unclear if we are working to save
    the future of Afghans and Afghanistan, or if by our continued
    participation we are actually helping in a way to save ourselves. At
    the end of the day, I believe that we are naturally suited and instinctively up to this task if we can focus our efforts and persevere, not crying like spoiled children with a short attention span: “Are we there yet?”

    For those who still are unsure if this mission may be a “bridge too
    far”, I include the late President Theodore Roosevelt’s in the
    “Man in the Arena” speech made in Paris in 1910 as a way to
    inspire others to be better that they believe they can be, just like
    Nelson Mandela’s challenges ; and to accomplish achievable goals,
    sometimes at the very edge of possibility:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the
    strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them
    better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
    whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives
    valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there
    is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually
    strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great
    devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best
    knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the
    worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his
    place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know
    victory nor defeat”.

    P.S. How would you like it if someone out a bullet in the head of your
    daughter, for the “offence” of going to school? It seems as if a
    16 year old girl can exercise more leadership than our own “leaders”,
    and I use that term loosely. Our own leaders need to listen to this
    girl who, “pardon my French” has more balls then they do. To our
    own leadership: Please grow a set

    Christian Science Monitor: 12th July 2013: As US eyes retreat in Afghanistan, it must listen to Malala


    Maybe we should not elect anyone over the age of 20?