Afghanistan’s political impasse has renewed calls that the U.S. revisit plans to pull its soldiers out of the country by the end of 2016. Look at Iraq, these critics say, arguing that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal starting in 2009 vaporized U.S. influence, opened the door to insurgents and plunged Iraq into chaos.
There’s no denying that Afghanistan now teeters between civil war and its first peaceful political transition. Credible allegations of massive fraud have tainted the June election. An internationally supervised audit of the results is behind schedule and mired in controversy. The two competing candidates, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, are tugging apart an agreement for a national unity government hammered out by Secretary of State John Kerry. President Hamid Karzai, seen by many as favoring Ghani, threatens to leave office by Sept. 2, regardless of whether the audit is done and the dispute over the government’s structure is resolved.
Yet it’s simplistic to say that as went Iraq, so goes Afghanistan. For starters, Afghanistan doesn’t face the same sectarian fissure between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Instead, for centuries, power struggles have played out among seven ethnic groups; Afghanistan’s Pashtuns may represent a plurality, but each of the other groups constitutes a majority in different regions. Moreover, Afghanistan’s population is more dispersed, it doesn’t have oil that sparks its own conflicts, and its geography, history and pattern of relationships with neighbors don’t look anything like those of Iraq.
More broadly, it isn’t clear that the number of U.S. boots on the ground translates into meaningful political leverage, or is necessarily conducive to an enduring, much less healthy, stability. That doesn’t mean that the United States shouldn’t push Ghani and Abdullah to compromise, and continue providing economic support. A stable government that supports the aspirations of the Afghan people is more likely to advance U.S. interests.
Yet the case for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan should rest not on their dubious utility in midwifing democracy. It should be based on their effectiveness in preventing the re-emergence there of a direct threat to the U.S. and its allies. Critics of the U.S. military pullout have seen that scary prospect in the stiff onslaught by the Taliban during the summer fighting season. But so far the Afghan security forces seem mostly to be holding their own. If that changes, and if the Taliban show signs of devolving into international terrorists, or of welcoming foreign fighters who are, then the U.S. and its allies may want to revisit their withdrawal timetable. Any decision to do so, however, should depend on the facts on the ground in Afghanistan, not in Iraq.