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How To Leave Afghanistan

It appears that the United States will soon be leaving Afghanistan, and not on its preferred schedule. Early this year the U.S. lost two soldiers in combat with the Taliban and six killed by members of the Afghan armed forces, formally our allies. If we continue to order our troops to work with and trust people who murder them, our Army will start to unravel.

But that is what we must do because it is what our strategy, or what passes for one, requires. That strategy is to continue fighting the Taliban through 2014, then turn the war over to the Afghan government’s army and police. U.S. advisors and trainers would remain, at least those who are not shot by the Afghan soldiers they are advising and training.

This is not a strategy. It is nothing but a hope, an increasingly forlorn one. We hope that somehow an army and a police force with low skills, little loyalty, and a small fraction of the combat power we possess will defeat a Taliban we have not been able to beat. We similarly disguised hope as a strategy in Vietnam.

Is it possible to replace this pseudo-strategy with a real strategy for the Afghan War? Yes. The starting point has to be a strategic goal that is attainable. The most that can now be attained in Afghanistan is a quiet defeat. That was what we got in Iraq, and it would look much the same in Afghanistan. An Afghan government, probably a coalition, would last for a while after we got out. We would leave on what we could claim was our own timetable, more or less. Afghanistan would not be a real state, just as Iraq is not a real state; in both cases, most of the security forces give their loyalty to entities other than the government. But by the time both disintegrate, the American public’s attention will have moved on to other things. That is how quiet defeat works.

Having set a realistic strategic goal, we next must understand what strategy is. Col. John Boyd, America’s greatest military theorist, defined it as a game of connection and isolation. We want to break the Taliban’s vital connections while strengthening our own.

As is widely recognized, the key to both is Pakistan. That country is the Taliban’s enabler. Break that connection, and the Taliban would be greatly weakened. In turn, most observers know that we need to strengthen our own connection to Pakistan. In strategy, geography counts.

What is not recognized is that the Karzai government, with our acquiesence and support, has done the opposite. It has compelled Pakistan to ally with the Taliban. How? By aligning Afghanistan with India.

India is Pakistan’s primary threat. When we permitted Karzai to openly align Afghanistan with India, we took away Pakistan’s strategic depth in a war with India and replaced it with the threat of a second front, an attack from the rear. Pakistan’s only possible counter is to support the Taliban, trusting it, once returned to power in Kabul, to break the Indian alliance and realign with Pakistan. This is the only thing Pakistan can do; it has no other strategic choice.


Washington refuses to understand this because in its hubris the Washington establishment refuses to take any other countries’ interests seriously. In effect it says to the rest of the world, Pakistan included: “Don’t talk to us about your interests. We’re America, which means you are supposed to make our interests the center of your concern.” This goes over as well in Islamabad as it does in Moscow, Cairo, and Beijing.

If we are to have a genuine Afghan strategy, this attitude is the first thing that has to change. Tell Pakistan instead: “We get it. Your problem is India. From now on, your problem is our problem. For starters, we will make sure Kabul breaks with India and becomes your very reliable, indeed subordinate, partner.”

Then we give Karzai an ultimatum: either he does that, openly and unambiguously, or we pull out as fast as we can get out. He can then deal with the Taliban on his own. In the end, he is a puppet and he knows it. The problem is that we have not been pulling the right strings.

With Pakistan’s strategic depth restored and the threat of a second front eliminated, it can then tell an isolated Taliban to swallow the pill labeled “coalition government.” That Afghan government does not have to last forever, just long enough to give us a “decent interval.” That in turn yields us a quiet defeat.

[1]What of India? Here, we need to ask the ever useful question, “What would Bismarck do?” While India still pretends to gibber at the specter of Pakistan, it knows it is far more powerful than its old rival. India’s real competitor now is China. America’s interests are far more dependent on China than on India, which gives us strong reasons to tilt toward Beijing. Bismarck would have realized that puts us in the driver’s seat. India needs us more than we need India. We can treat New Delhi accordingly.

That, in outline, is a plausible strategy for Afghanistan. Will Washington adopt it? Probably not. Few Washington insiders even know what a strategy is. John Boyd used to say, “Lots of people in Washington talk about strategy. Most of them can spell it. That’s as far as it goes.”

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "How To Leave Afghanistan"

#1 Comment By Harrison H Elfrink On May 21, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

America should have no business binding itself to the whims of Pakistan or India, regardless of what the outcome may be. But we should withdraw from the Second Vietnam, and let the Karzai government sink or swim nonetheless.
 The Taliban links to Pakistan is there, but it isn’t as obvious as most people think when you consider that Pakistan has a hopelessly corrupt government. Every agency, political party (even Imran Khan’s PTI), government branch is part of the Pakistani problem. Not even Imran Khan, who is a former Cricket player and a popular “Hope” and “Change” type of demagogue can turn things around. The government of Pakistan, and their president, Asif Ali Zardari (aka: Mr. 10%) and the Bhutto political dynasty he’s part of are actually pro-American, pro-Western. Corruption has led to shady dealings between various functions of the Pak government, especially the intelligence community with the Afghan Taliban. Corruption has created a decentralization and disunity among government officials and agencies, creating extra-government within the government.Also, keep in mind that Pakistan has their own Taliban problem. The Tarek-E Taliban, whom operate in Northern Pakistan, are a big burr in the Pakistani government’s saddle. Because of this, the Pakistani government has no intention in actually supporting the Taliban.

#2 Comment By Laurent On May 22, 2012 @ 4:40 am

Already, 10 000 Americans have been killed and 50 000 wounded because of the Middle East.
– Operation Eagle Claw in Iran (1980)8 killed and 4 wounded- Beirut barracks bombing (1983)241 killed and 60 wounded- US embassy bombing in Beirut (1983)17 killed- Rome and Vienna airport attacks (1985)5 killed- USS Stark bombing (1987)37 killed and 21 wounded- Lockerbie bombing (1988)190 killed- UTA Flight 772 bombing (1989)7 killed- Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991)293 killed and 458 wounded- Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1993)43 killed and 153 wounded- World Trade Center bombing (1993)6 killed and 1 042 wounded- U.S. Military Complex bombing in Riyadh (1995)5 killed- Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia (1996)19 killed and 240 wounded- US embassy bombings in Tanzania and in Kenya (1998)12 killed- USS Cole bombing (2000)17 killed and 39 wounded- September 11 attacks (2001)2 740 killed ans 6 000 wounded- Riyadh compound bombings in Saudi Arabia (2003)9 killed- Fort Hood shooting (2009)13 killed and 30 wounded- Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2012)4 486 killed and 32 223 wounded- War in Afghanistan (2001-2012)1 974 killed and 15 950 wounded- US contractors in Irak (2003-2012)257 killed- US contractors in Afghanistan (2001-2012)54 killed- CIA operations in Afghanistan (2001-2012)12 killed

#3 Comment By Vishal Mehra On May 22, 2012 @ 6:41 am

Taliban is a creature of Pakistan and it is absurd to claim that America has “compelled  Pakistan to ally with the Taliban”. This advise given by Mr Lind can only benefit Pakistani establishment that needs no encouragement to sabotage American interests.

#4 Comment By WillLeach On May 22, 2012 @ 4:37 pm

If the Taliban is a creature of Pakistans it is only because having such a creature fills certain gaps in Pakistans security. The Taliban and the Pakistan government each have thier own needs, and both entities include various actors competing for dominance. These various needs do intersect, as in the case of Pakistan feel

#5 Comment By Cyriac George On June 5, 2012 @ 6:57 am

What leads the author to believe that Pakistan has has the power to convince the Taliban to swallow the coalition government pill? The Taliban is willing to work with Pakistan now mainly to get rid of the US. If the US leaves, will the Taliban still be cozy with Pakistan? Given that the Pakistani government is “working with” the US and will likely continue to, there’s a real risk that eventually (and in many cases already) Pakistan itself will be vulnerable to Taliban attacks. Pakistan and the Taliban are in a marriage of convenience that may very well be temporary. The long-term interests of the Taliban may not coincide with that of Pakistan.

#6 Comment By Simon in London On July 13, 2014 @ 9:08 am

Backing Pakistan against India seems insane (an insanity the US pursued for much too long). Pakistan is an aggressive, disruptive entity, while India like modern China and modern Russia is a stabilising force. India is if anything even less aggressive than those two.
We (USA & its clients) should be strengthening links with all the pro-stability forces, and encouraging cordial relations between all of them. There is no reason for India to fight China; whereas India does face a genuine 4GW threat emanating from Pakistan. India, like China, Russia, and the USA, needs a secure ‘near abroad’, which means as dominant a position vs Pakistan as possible while retaining the existence of the Pakistani state.