Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Shifting the Front

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 28, 2011 --  

America is right to wind down its war in Afghanistan -- not least because it may need to shift the front next door.

When Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers fled over the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan nearly a decade ago, America's national interests largely went with them. If there were any lingering controversy over this assertion, it should have been put to rest by the discovery and killing of the group’s leader in neighboring Pakistan last month. President Obama's decision to begin drawing down American forces in Afghanistan is long overdue.

America's Afghan experience has consisted of half-hearted nation building combined with fighting for a half-crazy and totally corrupt Western-backed government against completely crazy extremist rebels. Given the sad state of the war, the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives lost since al-Qaeda moved to Pakistan may have been in vain.

Comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam are often empty clichés. Yet there is one clear parallel. The rickety Karzai regime, like the one in Saigon 36 years ago, is weak, corrupt, and commands unmotivated troops of dubious loyalty. If American forces were to leave today, there is no question the regime could not stand on its own.

This is bad news for the people of Afghanistan, many of whom may see a return of repression by religious extremists, fighting by rival warlords, or both. But this problem is not one for America's national interests, nor for the American taxpayers who must ultimately pay the war’s bill, nor for US soldiers who have long been putting their lives on the line over somebody else's feud.

America's limited interests in Afghanistan -- preventing Islamic extremists from using it as a base for attacking the West -- can be satisfied from a single airbase hosting special forces who can address threats from Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. And given the move of al-Qaeda to the other side of the border, Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons, and the shaky position of its government, it is Pakistan that should be the focus of American concern anyway.

Islamic militants have twice subjected Pakistani military bases to major attacks in as many years -- the first on the army headquarters, and the more recent on a naval base in Karachi. In the more recent attack, serious allegations have been raised of inside support within the armed forces for the attack, and a Pakistani reporter who dared wrote about this was abducted and killed.1 This incident, along with the sidelining of the Pakistani military in the attack on bin Laden, has seriously shaken the country’s faith in the armed forces 2 -- one of the only institutions holding the chaotic country together.

It is in light of the threat of Pakistan’s implosion that Obama sorely needs to put a final end to the two Bush era wars and the new one he started in Libya. The American military must be prepared with sufficient capacity to go in to Pakistan in the event of regime collapse in order to keep its nuclear arsenal out of the hands of extremists. Given the huge size of Pakistan (its population is nearly 170 million) and the secrecy of nuclear arsenal’s location, finding and securing these weapons is likely to require a major and prolonged operation.

Because of this newer Pakistani threat, American bases in Afghanistan have uses beyond the current war to prop up of the Karzai regime. As tired as it is of its Afghan misadventure, America must plan its withdrawal so as not to abandon its bases when it really needs them should the front in the shooting war shift a few hundred miles to the east.

Related Web Columns:

Pashtun Poison
Peace Through Partition in Afghanistan
, August 17, 2010

The End of Pakistan, February 24, 2009

Lessons for Victory in Afghanistan, July 8, 2008

Forever Taliban, June 27, 2006


New York Times, Pakistani Journalist Who Covered Security and Terrorism Is Found Dead, May 31, 2011 National Public Radio, Calls Grow Louder For Probe Into Pakistan's Military, June 28, 2011