In my view, the most important lesson to be learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s is what happened after the Soviets left. The United States turned its attentions elsewhere, and Afghanistan descended into civil war. The resultant instability and eventual takeover of the country by the Taliban meant that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists were able to find a safe haven there. Throughout the late 1990s, thousands of terrorists were trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and it became the base for the attacks of 9/11. When I hear policy-makers talk about walking away from Afghanistan, I want to remind them of what the consequences can be.
(From In My Time, p. 347.)
Not so, say Joshua Rovner and Austin Long in a CATO Institute Foreign Policy Briefing.
They point out that both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued that state-building and counterterrorism are inseparable. Obama’s national security strategy states that, “In Afghanistan, we must deny al Qaeda a safe haven, deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the government, and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”
First of all, that argument is not even practical. Rovner and Long explain:
Unfortunately, the necessary ingredients for successful state building—time, money, and existing institutions—are in desperately short supply in Afghanistan. Public and congressional opposition to the war is rising in the United States, and the Obama administration has already announced it will scale back the U.S. commitment beginning next year. In addition, Afghanistan’s political and economic institutions are extremely weak. The fledgling government has had enormous difficulty expanding control outside of Kabul. The judiciary, which is notoriously inefficient, competes in many places with a shadow Taliban court system. Economic institutions remain fragile at best; witness the recent run on the Kabul Bank. For all of these reasons, the U.S. desire to build a strong and legitimate government in Afghanistan is not practical.
“The good news,” they explain, “is that it is not necessary.”
A state-building failure would not mean victory for al Qaeda or the Taliban. Even if the United States substantially reduces its ground forces in Afghanistan and the Kabul government remains weak and ineffectual, al Qaeda would not be able to recreate anything like the safe haven it once enjoyed. The original circumstances that made sanctuary possible no longer exist today.
Why? First of all, if the Taliban were to regain control over parts of Afghanistan, there are significant costs to pay (i.e. airstrikes), which they know well. There would be little hesitation from either American political party about using air assets for such operations. It is much more likely that al Qaeda will have to remain in hiding for the foreseeable future. This was proven in the Korengal Valley in 2010, when al Qaeda attempted to reestablish itself in an area that coalition forces had left, only to be greeted by U.S. aircraft informed by Afghan sources on the ground.
Second, the Afghan Taliban have some support from the Pakistani ISI. Al Qaeda does as well, but they will most likely elect to just stay in their current sanctuary. Pakistani militants, an enemy of the Pakistani government, do not have such support from the ISI. The Afghan Taliban would not risk their ISI support by extending a welcome to Pakistani militants if the Taliban were to return to Afghanistan.
Thus, if the Taliban return to Afghanistan, they have no incentive to welcome neither al Qaeda nor Pakistani militants. If they welcome the former, the U.S. will certainly retaliate. If they welcome the latter, no one will stop Pakistan from attacking.
As Rovner and Long conclude:
The upshot of this analysis is that state building is not necessary to succeed in Afghanistan. The decline of the central state will not lead to a domino effect in the region. Al Qaeda will not be able to recreate its old safe haven there even if the government collapses. Pakistani militants will not find reliable sanctuary either, regardless of what happens in Kabul. Rather than investing heavily in state building, the United States can achieve its interests by streamlining its counterterrorism campaign. It does not need to become mired in the bloody business of Afghanistan’s political evolution.