Ross Douthat had this to say today about why we can’t leave Afghanistan:
Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.
Note that Ross calls them “considerations” in favor of staying in Afghanistan. He evidently can’t bring himself to call them “reasons,” for they are anything but. Take the “memory of 9/11.” No doubt no president would want the Taliban to take Kabul on his watch. (The Taliban already control roughly half the country already, but Ross’s assumption that nobody will notice until they take over the few square kilometers where the media are concentrated is probably right.) According to departing General McChrystal, for example, Obama doesn’t really care about Afghanistan and probably sees the occupation as pointless. Still, he supports it because it keeps Afghanistan boring and therefore off the front page. Rather than order of withdrawal, in other words, Obama prefers to buy an option at $1 trillion [update: $70+ billion] a year that lets him pursue his domestic agenda without distraction. To put Ross’s point another way, no President would have the courage to make Afghanistan policy based on what’s actually best for America. The paramount concern is public relations.
As for Ross’s “consideration” number two — that Afghanistan is a useful “base for counterterrorism operations” — it is not even coherent. Leave aside that Afghanistan, one of the most remote places on earth, is a comically inconvenient place to run a counter-terrorism program. (As an alternative, may I suggest Washington, D.C., where the government that is supposed to protect us from terrorism is actually located?) A military base is where commands can be given and equipment and personnel stored. It exists to stage an army in order to control territory. An international terrorist organization such as al Qaeda, however, does not need to control terroritory. It can move in, move out, form and reform in any number of regions around the globe, including (indeed, perhaps especially) ones occupied by foreigners. To combat such an organization, defending a piece of territory is useless, possibly even counter-productive.
Lastly, Ross resorts to IR-theory concepts such as “balance of power” and “security vacuum” to suggest that the occupation is somehow preventing nuclear terrorism. Here he seems deeply confused. Nuclear weapons require vast sums, technical expertise and secure facilities to produce. Consequently, the only entity capable of making them so far is a state. The danger of nuclear terrorism is that one government or other will either (i) carelessly allow a weapon to be passed to a terrorist organization, or (ii) collapse with its nuclear material unaccounted for. It is unclear how the concept “balance of power,” which refers to a rivalry among multiple states, elucidates these dangers. Afghanistan in particular does not even have one state, let alone several. It has experienced civil war of one form another for decades; there is no “balance of power” there of which one can meaningfully speak. Doubtless, if the U.S. withdraws, Afghans will go on killing each other, as they have been doing for generations. Though lamentable, that does not increase the risk of nuclear terrorism. Clearly, Ross is alluding to some nightmare chain of events that U.S. withdrawal could trigger. His IR-theory jargon, however, only obscures what that chain of events might be.
In short, Ross does not come up with any intelligible rationale, other than executive branch PR, to continue nation-building in Afghanistan. We know, of course, what Ross is trying to do: He’s playing the Sage Establishment Moderate, able to incorporate the strengths of both competing positions. Thus, in his latest column, he concedes to doves that withdrawal is a worthy goal, but argues with the hawks that, to get out, we must continue COIN. In this case, his purported wisdom is unearned, for Ross comes with no actual reason that America has to be in Afghanistan in the first place.