Does an Afghanistan exit strategy hurt our allies?

Senate Republicans criticized President Obama's decision to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011, claiming it sends the wrong message to our allies. But is this really accurate?

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Uh oh, looks like you are starting to have an effect on the war. Congress is freaking out, calling hearings, holding up so-called emergency funding, and demanding to know why it is that the longest war in US history has to go on even longer. All of this has led some to question the President’s leadership altogether. Is he an effective, or even competent, Commander-in-Chief? Serious concerns about Obama’s escalation policy are being raised, and it’s likely to severely damage his presidency. Well, rather than using this opportunity to their advantage, the opposition party has opted instead to say something stupid:

Senate Republicans on Wednesday attacked President Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July of next year, saying that the United States was sending a self-defeating message to its allies in the region. […]

“Right now, we’re sounding an uncertain trumpet,” [Republican John] McCain said. “Our allies in the region are convinced that we’re leaving.” […]

Ah yes, the old “exit strategy = defeat” meme. This is one of those annoying war myths that just won’t go away, no matter how stupid it looks in the face of facts. Weirdly enough, it’s often the argument made by people who claim to be “strong” on national security, when in reality it should call into question their grasp of even the mild complexities of war. This argument isn’t just wrong, it’s plainly stupid, and you only to have pay a little bit of attention to see why.

Normally when you see this myth, it’s about our enemies rather than our allies. It’s usually something along the lines of “if we tell the insurgents when we’re leaving, they’ll just wait until we’re gone and start back up.” That’s wrong though. See, much like US senators, insurgents have to have legitimacy -that is, some right or justification for making decisions and taking actions on behalf of so many people. That doesn’t necessarily mean that citizens vote for the insurgency, rather their legitimacy comes from the presence of the occupation.

Take Iraq, for example. The Sunni Arab insurgency is able to support itself in its civil war against Kurds, Persians, Shi’a, etc partly because its “constituency” (not always the locals) supports their fight against the American occupation, in the name of Iraq and/or Islam. The US supports some of them, further tying their legitimacy to our presence, but also retarding the civil war which would inevitably destroy the insurgency. When the Americans withdraw, the Shi’a like Prime Minister Maliki, purportedly our allies, will be free to overtly reject reconciliation and prosecute the civil war against the Sunni (and any other dissenting Iraqi) as brutally as they like.

That’s why Sunni insurgents are increasing their violence just as US troops are re-deploying to Afghanistan, because US leaders gave vague promises about withdrawing “based on conditions on the ground.” The insurgents want to change the conditions on the ground, increase the violence so we stay longer, thus keeping them in business another day. Otherwise they lose their legitimacy, they become not heroic freedom fighters or well-paid concerned local citizens but anti-Sadd- excuse me, anti-Maliki government criminals. And they will be annihilated.

Our enemies are not waiting for us to leave, they desperately need us to stay. But what about the twist we have on Afghanistan? Is an exit strategy not only good for our enemies, but bad for our allies?  Unfortunately no, it’s just as stupid.

Who are our allies? That would be NATO and Pakistan, both of which would benefit greatly from our exit strategy.

NATO-member Canada is already in the process of replacing its military with an all-civilian program, and the UK has completely ruled out any more troops for Afghanistan. If the US military leaves, the development and “nation building” projects by our NATO allies will get better, not worse.

And much like insurgents in Iraq, the Taliban in Pakistan gain much of their legitimacy from the continuing US occupation of Afghanistan, and the illegal drone strikes and special forces raids in Pakistan. Pakistan’s army and intelligence services are likewise able to support the Taliban and other militants against India because the US is there in the region fighting, showering the Pakistani military with weapons and money.

If we left? We’d blow a massive hole in Kayani’s budget for fighting India, and that includes “strategic depth” like extensive support for Taliban militants. With the military’s ability to create conflicts hampered, the civilian government of Pakistan would have more legitimate political space to pursue its goals of economic development and peace with its neighbors. The liberal Pakistanis, our real allies in the region, would gain that ever-important legitimacy.

Conversely, the Taliban lose one of their biggest claims to legitimacy (besides Islam, which is another conversation entirely). Many Pakistanis and Afghans, even liberal, educated middle class as well as the victims of militant violence themselves, often sympathize with the cause of the insurgents simply because they’re fighting the American invaders. The Taliban may be extremely conservative and oppressive, but at least they’re not raiding houses at night and killing pregnant women. At least they’re not blowing up women and children with cowardly robots in the sky. Or so the logic goes. If the US leaves, there are no more invaders to fight, and the Taliban are plainly exposed as the Pakistan-destroying monsters that they are.

See why this myth is stupid? It’s exactly the opposite of reality. Exit strategies are bad for our enemies, and good for our allies. It’s just that simple. So don’t be fooled by the opposition’s talking points about “uncertain trumpets” and “sending the wrong message.” Ending the wars is good for the US, it’s good for our allies, and it’s good for the citizens themselves.

A timetable for withdrawal is a good thing. Forcing the President to keep his commitments is a good thing. Ignore the partisan myth-making and keep pressuring your representatives to hold Obama accountable and bring this war to an end.

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