Is It Possible For The United States To Withdraw From Any Foreign Engagement?

  • On Sunday the Trump administration announced plans to withdraw most or all U.S. troops from the Northeastern part of Syria. There are currently about a thousand U.S. troops in the area, working with allied Kurdish forces.

  • Within hours, the official talking point — that Trump was abandoning the Kurds to be slaughtered by Turkish forces, and thereby sending a dangerous message to all U.S. allies everywhere — had taken universal hold.

  • But wait a second. It’s a given that every single one of the various U.S. foreign engagements — whether it be Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Niger, or wherever — comes with allies on the ground in that jurisdiction.

  • What happens when the U.S. leaves? The answer will always be the same: Our former allies on the ground will be seen as having collaborated with the enemy. They will suffer the consequences.

  • So then, is it ever possible for the U.S. to withdraw from any foreign engagement? . . .

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There's No Good Answer In Afghanistan

I don't comment much here on the subjects of geopolitics and foreign policy.  A big reason for that is that much of the information needed to comment intelligently is not available to people outside the government.  On the other hand, just because the government actors have access to far more information than us mere citizens does not necessarily mean that they can come with any good ideas of what to do in difficult situations.  Unfortunately, when there are no obvious good ideas of what to do, the prescriptions of the government actors almost always come down to the same thing, which is "give us more money and more personnel to keep doing what we are doing."  That is certainly a fair description of the Afghanistan situation.  

During the his campaign for President, Donald Trump did not make a big issue out of Afghanistan.  However, when he did address it, both during the campaign and before, he was clear that he thought the right answer was to get out promptly.  From a compilation at CNBC on August 21:

Five years ago to the day Monday, Trump called Afghanistan "a complete waste." He added: "Time to come home!" . . .  In a March 2013 tweet, he said the U.S. "should leave Afghanistan immediately."   "No more wasted lives," Trump tweeted. "If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first."

Seven months later -- and doubtless after having been worked over multiple times by his generals and his foreign policy advisors -- Trump has now agreed to keep on slugging it out for the foreseeable future in that godforsaken country.   Here is the full text of his August 21 speech on the subject.  Basically, he admitted that there is no alternative to continued efforts to suppress terrorist activity in Afghanistan:

A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. . . .  We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq. . . .  I [have] concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.

Of course, what Trump didn't do in the speech was to give any real idea of what our ultimate goal is and whether there is any hope of ever actually achieving it and declaring the effort concluded.  It's just as well he didn't address those things, because the answers will not be anything that anyone wants to hear.  Goal?  The best we can hope for is to maintain a highly unsatisfactory status quo, where an official government (more or less entirely on our payroll) keeps a tenuous grip on some of the more important areas of the country, and the Taliban and other terrorist organizations do not completely take over and run the place as a world terrorist training ground.  Cost: $1 trillion and counting.  Hey, since it's now been about 17 years, that's less than $60 billion per year.  A bargain!

Actually, I don't mean to be too critical.  Also, I'm interested in whether readers think they have any better ideas.  A few thoughts:

  • Trump's strategy does at least contain some substantial improvements over Obama's.  Obama's idea of pre-announcing the upcoming withdrawal date was always lunacy.  Of course the adversaries would just lie low and wait him out.  As soon as he was gone they were back bigger than ever.   
  • Those advocating something dramatically different often say something like "go hard or get out." That's easy to say, but what does "go hard" even mean in practice?  This is not a situation where there is some formal army that can be defeated or captured and then the war is over.  Does "go hard" mean killing every single person in the country?
  • And then there's the "get out" part.  Trump is absolutely right in reminding us that the reason we "got in" in the first place was that Afghanistan had been used as the site of the training base for the 9/11 attacks.  Would anyone tolerate allowing that to happen again?

After about 40 years of invasions and civil wars, there is essentially no industry in Afghanistan.  Not that there ever was much, but with constant fighting going on, nobody is going to undertake any project -- like a large factory or a mine -- that involves hundreds of millions of dollars in investment that can then immediately be lost.  So that leaves exactly two sources of real income (other than subsistence farming) in Afghanistan:  working for the Americans or NATO, and opium poppies.  More or less all of our "friends" in that country are on our payroll.  I'm not meaning to say that they are not necessarily sympathetic to our goals.  But when we leave, what do they have to fall back on?  Opium, opium, and opium.

And of course, a little-mentioned aspect of our mission in Afghanistan has been a massive effort to eradicate the production of opium.  Here's a write-up from Common Dreams back in 2014.  At that point, some $7 billion had been spent in the opium-eradication efforts.  The result?:

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Attorney General Eric Holder and US AID head Rajiv Shah, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko writes: "Despite spending over $7 billion to combat opium poppy cultivation and to develop the Afghan government’s counternarcotics capacity, opium poppy cultivation levels in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013."  "As of June 30, 2014, the United States has spent approximately $7.6 billion on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan," the letter states.  "Despite the significant financial expenditure, opium poppy cultivation has far exceeded previous records," he writes, adding that this "calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts."

Is there any hope of ever making any progress on this effort?:

Though the crop has funded extremist and criminal groups and contributed to a public health crisis, many Afghans see opium poppy cultivation as their only option. A UNODC report issued last year stated that Afghan farmers cited as among the top reasons for their cultivation of opium poppy its high sales price, high income from little land, improving their living conditions, and poverty. 

In other words, no.

So is there any possible better strategy than the one Trump has reluctantly accepted?  The only one I can see involves accepting the opium trade and doing some kind of a deal with the Taliban.  I'm not saying that's a good answer either, but the alternative is $60 billion (and probably much more) per year, thousands of deaths, and a festering status quo.  Anyway, with the opioid crisis exploding back here in the U.S., and Afghanistan as the largest supplier of the non-synthetic part of that market, neither Trump nor any other President was going to accept that alternative at this moment. 

What's Going On In Afghanistan?

While everyone's attention has been diverted for the past few months onto insane conspiracy theories about Russia and, now, twitter wars with CNN hosts, what has been happening with some of the things that are actually important?  For example, have you heard anything lately about the war in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is famous as the country that no one can subjugate.  In the nineteenth century Britain fought endless wars there without ever bringing the place to heel.  In the 1980s the Soviet Union invaded and made a big push to gain control; but by 1991 it was the Soviet Union that had collapsed, and Afghanistan was basically back to its wild state.  After the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, when it emerged that Osama bin Laden had been using remote areas in Afghanistan for his training bases, the U.S. decided to take its chance.  

Seven years later, it was the same old morass.  If you are old enough to remember when Barack Obama was first running for President in 2008, you will likely recall that he made a big distinction between the two foreign wars that the U.S. was conducting at the time.  The war in Iraq was a "dumb war" that "never should have been authorised and never should have been waged."  But the war in Afghanistan was "the good war" that could be a success if only we did it right.  If it was going poorly, that was just due to Bush's incompetence.  What we needed to do was to make the effort to go ahead and win it, say, within 16 months, and then bring the troops home.  

After his election, Obama got going with a "surge" to over 100,000 troops in the country.  The coalition forces were led by the highly-regarded General Stanley McChrystal.  In the spring of 2010, I was invited to a seminar in Washington at which McChrystal (on a brief trip home) spoke.  After his talk, I got to ask a question, which went something like this:  "The Afghan economy is hugely dependent on the production of opium, with some estimates of the percent of Afghan GDP from opium in excess of 50%.  Yet the U.S. says it plans both to turn Afghanistan into a functioning country and also do away with the opium production.  How is it possible to eliminate the Afghans' dominant source of income without turning them all against us?"  I still remember how McChrystal's began his answer, which was "It's difficult."  The answer went on some from there, but it was completely clear that there was no idea or strategy that had any real chance to work.

Just a couple of weeks later, Obama fired McChrystal (replacing him with David Petraeus).  A few commanders later, in 2014, Obama decided to declare the American "combat mission" over and bring most (although not all) of the remaining troops home.  But several thousand troops still remained, and as Obama's presidency wound down, the insurgency in Afghanistan just wouldn't go away.  In July 2016 Obama decided to raise the number of troops back up.  A Bloomberg report on a statement Obama made on July 6, 2016, got the headline "Obama Finds He Can't Escape Afghan War He Once Vowed to End."  Over to you, Donald Trump!

What's the latest from Afghanistan?  I mean, we've now spent an estimated $800 billion plus in just direct military expenditures on this war (per the Watson Institute here) -- and that doesn't count plenty of things to come, like future healthcare costs for the vets.  You can be forgiven if you haven't noticed anything about this important subject lately, what with the Russia thing and the CNN twitter exchanges and whatever.  But Afghanistan involves serious questions of national security, let alone the trillion plus bucks.  What's going on?

The short answer is that fighting continues seemingly without end and the security situation has only deteriorated recently.  On May 31 a huge truck bomb went off right in the middle of Kabul, killing more than 80 and damaging much property, including several foreign embassies.  From a report in the Globe and Mail on that event:

Sixteen years after the United States and its NATO allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom – promising to deny safe haven to terrorist groups and to liberate Afghanistan’s people, primarily its women – the country’s unity government is dangerously fragile and its army controls a shrinking share of territory.  The Taliban are rapidly regaining ground, and women’s rights in the parts of the country back under their control are little different than in the days before the U.S.-led invasion.

The most recent substantive report in the New York Times was on June 28.  Excerpt:

Two Taliban groups that recently switched allegiance to the Islamic State have overrun an embattled district in northern Afghanistan, killing at least 10 government fighters and a large number of civilians, according to Afghan officials in the area. . . .  Last week, Islamic State fighters overran all of Darzab, according to the acting district governor, Baz Mohammad Dawar. Government officials were able to regain control of the district’s center, but not most of the rest of the territory; 10 police officers or soldiers were killed in the fight, he said.

How could it be possible that things are going so badly?  Amazingly, almost nothing you read on the subject addresses the fundamental issue, which is that the people are just never going to support a regime imposed from outside that intends to take away the major source of their income.  The major source of their income is opium.  How much of their income?  Unfortunately, there are no trustworthy numbers from Afghanistan.  The UN Office of Drug Control did a big survey of Afghan opium production in 2014, which claims to show that opium exports declined from close to 100% of Afghan GDP in 2002 to maybe 15% by 2014 (page 16).  I'm highly dubious that the recent figure could be so small.  For one thing, the same report shows opium production increasing from 3400 tons annually to 8400 tons over the same 2002-2014 period (page 17).  And then, what is supposedly the rest of the Afghan economy that has grown so rapidly?  They don't say, but the likely answer is foreign aid and contractor disbursements from the U.S. and other countries, counted at 100 cents on the dollar as they tend to do with these things.  But when the foreigners withdraw, all of that goes away, and the people who have been working for the foreigners become unemployed.  The thing that is left on which they can rely is the opium.

Looking for a serious article that actually addresses this subject, I find a long piece in The Nation from February 2016 by Alfred McCoy, titled "The Drug That Makes the Taliban Possible."  The prescient subtitle is "Until Washington deals with Afghanistan’s economic dependence on opium, the Taliban aren’t going anywhere."  The article describes how, over the course of the 16 years of the U.S. operation, Washington continuously engaged in ineffective eradication efforts against the opium fields, even as production soared.

Washington came to rely on private contractors like DynCorp to train Afghan manual eradication teams. However, by 2005, according to New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, that approach had already become “something of a joke.” Two years later, as the Taliban insurgency and opium cultivation both spread in what seemed to be a synergistic fashion, the US Embassy again pressed Kabul to accept the kind of aerial defoliation the United States had sponsored in Colombia. President Hamid Karzai refused, leaving this critical problem unresolved. . . .  [In 2007] UN stated that Taliban guerrillas had “started to extract from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics, and militia pay.” A study for the US Institute of Peace concluded that, by 2008, the movement had 50 heroin labs in its territory and controlled 98 percent of the country’s poppy fields. That year, it reportedly collected $425 million in “taxes” levied on opium traffic, and with every harvest, it gained the necessary funds to recruit a new crop of young fighters from the villages. Each of those prospective guerrillas could count on monthly payments of $300, far above the wages they would have made as agricultural laborers.

McCoy says that he foretold in 2009 that continued military efforts without a transformation of the Afghan economy would never work.  But when Obama came in, the strategy was just more of the same straight military approach:

By attacking the guerrillas but ignoring the opium harvest that funded new insurgents every spring, Obama’s surge soon suffered that defeat [that I had] foretold. As 2012 ended, the Taliban guerrillas had, according to The New York Times, “weathered the biggest push the American-led coalition is going to make against them.” Amid the rapid drawdown of allied forces to meet President Obama’s December 2014 deadline for “ending” US combat operations, reduced air operations allowed the Taliban to launch mass-formation attacksin the north, northeast, and south, killing record numbers of Afghan army troops and police.   

For the latest, we have this from the New York Review of Books on June 18, "Afghanistan: It's Too Late":

Until now, Western forces have been able to keep the government in power by financing the budget and paying salaries and maintaining the Afghan army in the field. But it has become increasingly difficult, with the Taliban advancing in many parts of the country making US and NATO forces look increasingly irrelevant.

What about President Trump?  He has barely spoken on the subject of Afghanistan.  But new Defense Secretary James Mattis addressed the issue a couple of days ago.  It will not surprise you to learn that Mattis's idea is -- more troops:

[Mattis] appeared to place blame on the Obama administration for cutting the number of troops "too rapidly."  "We may have pulled our troops out too rapidly, reduced the numbers a little too rapidly, but the difference today is that the Afghan army is actually able to carry the fight. . . ."

Well, he's a military guy.  You can't expect him to come up with a plan other than a military plan.

McCoy at The Nation, has an alternative plan:  The U.S. just needs to transform the Afghan economy by putting U.S. taxpayer money into supporting real agriculture, like "orchards" and "flocks":

[I]nvesting even a small portion of all that misspent military funding in rural Afghanistan could produce economic alternatives for the millions of farmers who depend upon the opium crop for employment. Such money could help rebuild that land’s ruined orchards, ravaged flocks, wasted seed stocks, and wrecked snowmelt irrigation systems that, before these decades of war, sustained a diverse agriculture.            

It is completely unclear why the Afghans would go along with this when opium pays far more.

I hate to say it, but there almost certainly is no perfect answer for Afghanistan.  Any hope of relative peace and calm in Afghanistan means living with widespread production of opium for the foreseeable future.  Alternatively, we can aggressively pursue eradication of the opium, and face the increasing ascendancy of the Taliban, widespread fighting, and the likely overthrow of the current Afghan regime within a few years.  Take your choice!  I guess it's no wonder that nobody wants to talk about it.