Withdrawing from Afghanistan

U.S. troops will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan this spring, ahead of schedule.

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From Slate:

When one reporter asked if our accomplishments in this war had been worth all the bloodshed, Obama recalled the reason we intervened in Afghanistan in the first place—the 3,000 Americans killed on Sept. 11, 2001, as a result of an attack that al-Qaida had planned on Afghan soil. Our “central goal” ever since, he said, has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida while also bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. Mission accomplished.

But this answer was misleading. It sidestepped the fact that, at the end of 2009, Obama sent an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, a surge of nearly 50 percent above the 68,000 already there—and that he did so not to go after bin Laden and al-Qaida (a task that could have been handled with far fewer forces) but rather to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy, at least in the cities, particularly in the southern districts. This strategy involved not only killing and capturing bad guys but also helping to reform the Afghan government and providing the people with basic services—in short, nation-building.

What Obama didn’t mention is that this surge and this strategy were not a success.

Redefining the reasons for fighting a war is nothing new in American history. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln redefined the Civil War as a campaign for the liberation of black slaves in the South, despite insisting up to that point that the war had little to do with slavery. After the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq President Bush increasingly described the Iraq War as a campaign to free the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator and enable them to establish democratic self-government.

In this case, I suspect most Americans are perfectly fine with Obama’s assessment that the nation-building experiment in Afghanistan has failed. To be sure, there are those on the right and the left who will insist that this is a major mistake, that if we leave Afghanistan to the Taliban we will only have to go back there again in a few years. But aside from all of the obvious problems with nation-building and counter-insurgency, Afghanistan is not the only failed state in the world (think Somalia, Mali, and increasingly Syria). It is by no means clear that America has the power to fix one of these countries, let alone all of them.

But as more isolationist minded Americans have long pointed out (including President Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign), just because there is a problem doesn’t mean that problem has a solution, let alone one that our country is capable of solving. In the end, America needs to reduce its involvement in Afghanistan not because we should return to the sorts of isolationist foreign policies that led to disaster in the 1930s and 1940s, but because we need to preserve our strength – moral, economic, military, political – for the sorts of efforts that matter most, and that actually have a chance of success. We survived the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 despite the worst prognosticators’ predictions about the domino theory. We will survive this withdrawal as well.

Whatever we might say about the particular failures of leadership and strategy that lie behind the American conduct of the Afghanistan War, or behind Obama’s withdrawal of America from that war, I think most of us will be relieved to (mostly*) turn the last page of this chapter in our history.

* It is likely that 10,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan to assist the country in its continued struggle against Al Qaeda.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on January 14, 2013, in Barack Obama, International Affairs and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Withdrawing from Afghanistan.

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