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Troop Drawdown: Why We’re Asking All the Wrong Questions About Afghanistan

As the date for a long-promised drawdown in Afghanistan nears, debate is swirling. Many Democrats are urging a significant withdrawal, while most Republicans and U.S. military leaders warn that doing so will endanger recent gains. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has cautioned that the United States “shouldn’t let up on the gas too much.” “We’ve made a lot of headway,” he said during a recent visit to Afghanistan, “but we have a ways to go.”

But this debate misses the point. The crucial issue at stake isn’t the pace or extent of American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the fundamental nature of U.S. strategy. Ultimately, the current obsession with troop numbers obscures more than it reveals—postponing a badly needed reexamination of our strategy itself, especially the faulty assumptions on which it is based.

First, U.S. strategy has assumed that, without a U.S. and NATO military presence, the Taliban would rule again. But this does not stand up under careful examination. The Taliban came to power in 1996 because the warlords opposing it had little outside support and, more importantly, because Afghans did not understand just what Taliban rule would mean and thus did little to resist it. The Taliban was seen as a lesser evil than the violence and chaos of warlord rule. But Afghans are not stupid—now they know exactly what Taliban rule would mean. Even without a massive outside military presence, they would resist. The result would be that the Taliban might be able to exert control over limited parts of Afghanistan, particularly the Pashtun-dominated southern regions, but could never again regain the degree of control they had before, when they ruled all but the far north.

Second, American strategy has assumed that if the Taliban were to somehow regain control of all or part of Afghanistan, it would provide bases and sanctuary to Al Qaeda, which would be used to attack the United States. This notion is repeated often and seldom questioned. In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, for instance, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan warned that a hasty withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan would result in “likely attacks on the U.S. homeland.” This is only true if the Taliban is remarkably dumb. Before September 11, it allowed Al Qaeda to train and plot in Afghanistan because it was profoundly ignorant of American intentions and power. The United States, Taliban leaders believed, would never intervene in Afghanistan. Now they know better. If the Taliban somehow returned to power, it would face enemies enough without provoking another American intervention by giving Al Qaeda a free hand.

Third, American strategy has also assumed that if the Taliban regained control of some or all of Afghanistan and did, for some reason, provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda, this would increase the threat to the United States. Again, this overlooks history. Al Qaeda was able to plot terrorism from Afghanistan before September 11 only because the United States was unaware of the impending danger. Had America known what was coming, it certainly would have rendered Al Qaeda’s Afghanistan bases useless even without a full-scale invasion. Even if Al Qaeda were somehow able to recreate its pre-September 11 Afghanistan sanctuary, the United States would quickly destroy it, most likely using a combination of airpower, special operations, and, if necessary, limited duration ground assaults.

Finally, American strategy has assumed that, at some point, the Taliban will grow tired of the conflict and give up. This is fantasy. The Taliban and other opposition forces gain power and money from sustaining the conflict. They are never going to sue for peace.

Ultimately, then, the current American strategy is based on flawed assumptions. The United States must recognize that there are ways of preventing Afghanistan from providing a base for transnational terrorists other than attempting to turn it into something it has never been and perhaps never will be. These are big and very important issues. But quibbling over the pace and extent of American military disengagement does not help address them.

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.