The United States is approaching its tenth year of the War in Afghanistan. Even before WikiLeaks released its extensive archive of behind-the-scenes documents chronicling a war gone awry, it was difficult to find a voice of optimism about the war, save the official communications of the Obama Administration.
Afghanistan: Take the Troops, Leave the Spooks
The War in Afghanistan began as a response to September 11, 2001. The Taliban regime provided safe haven to Osama Bin-Laden's Al-Qaeda and the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history was planned somewhere between Kabul and the Hindu Kush. In 2001, invading Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban and going after Al-Qaeda served American interests and made strategic sense. For its first couple years, the Afghan conflict was seen as "the good war" in contrast to George W. Bush's war of choice and folly in Iraq. Much has changed since then.
What many of us failed to grasp when the conflict began is that the United States was not at war with Afghanistan. We were at war with Al-Qaeda - a non-state actor engaging in a new type of conflict; the first war of new millennium. Unfortunately, we brought a decidedly nineteenth century model of occupation and nation-building to a twenty-first century fight. The time to update our strategy is long overdue.
Al-Qaeda has moved on, allegedly to Yemen and Somalia. Why are we wasting our time building the institutions of state around Hamid Karzai and his corrupt cronies? Afghanistan has been the deathbed of empires from the Soviet Union, to the British to Alexander the Great. America will be next unless we get out and now is the time to make our exit - with one caveat. The spies must stay.
America financed the Afghan mujahideen - a precursor to the Taliban - during the 1980s in an attempt to cripple the Soviet Union. The strategy worked and the Soviets were eventually beaten into retreat a decade later. Our mistake was to abandon Afghanistan completely once Red Army left. Starting in 1989, the country became a black hole for the U.S. intelligence community.
During the 1990s rival warlords fought for control of the Afghanistan. We had no dogs in the fight and were completely removed from country. After more than a half-decade of civil war the Taliban won control of Afghanistan in 1997. We knew next to nothing about them and were content to let them rule the country until 9/11 - which caught us completely by surprise.
To ensure that does not happen again we will need to remove our soldiers but maintain our intelligence operations and in-country contacts - similar to our approach in other hostile countries like Syria.
We entered Afghanistan with lofty and noble goals. Ten years later we stand rudderless and confused. At this point, occupying Afghanistan no longer serves our strategic interests. We need to refocus on extracting ourselves from the country, disrupting Al-Qaeda's global operations and protecting ourselves from another terrorist attack.
There is still time to get this right.