Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Time for a Clean Slate

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 25, 2013 --  

Afghanistan's government can't survive without American support. That planned support isn't worth giving.

When the city of Hué fell to communist North Vietnamese forces 39 years ago today1, it was the beginning of the end for South Vietnam. The people's tepid loyalty for the corrupt regime of President Nguyen Van Thieu was no match for a determined and brutal enemy. The infamous pictures of American helicopters desperately evacuating the American embassy were taken just five weeks after the fall of South Vietnam's northernmost city.

A similar fate appears poised to take place in Afghanistan after the end of this year, after the final withdrawal of American combat troops. Like President Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is hopelessly corrupt and maintains loyalty largely through bribes paid to his underlings. The brutal Taliban rebels patiently maintain strongholds just over the border, and are well-funded by wealthy ideological supporters in the Persian Gulf.

To make matters seem all the more hopeless, the increasingly volatile Afghan leader has stubbornly refused to sign an agreement with the United States authorizing a residual force to remain after 2014. His bitter dispute with America has led him to congratulate Crimea for being annexed by Russia. He boasts with nationalistic vigor that Afghan forces will be ready to defend the country2 -- something that sounds more like a delusion or a death wish than a firm grasp on reality.

Without American support, it is likely that the Taliban would ultimately march into Kabul, leading terrified residents to flee the country much like the South Vietnamese in 1975.

Fortunately for Afghans, there is little chance that Hamid Karzai will follow in the footsteps of Nguyen Van Thieu. That's because his presidential term is at an end, with elections scheduled for April 5. All of the major candidates support keeping foreign troops in the country.3 This all but assures that American forces will be invited to remain in the country into next year.

This is great news for Afghans, but it is terrible news for Americans.

Twelve years into the war in Afghanistan, the United States has spent over $700 billion4 fighting a war that by some measures is the longest in American history, and appears to have no end in sight. It only took a couple of months in the fall of 2001 to push the Taliban out of power and eliminate al Qaeda sanctuaries in the country. By the end of 2002, when America's primary goals were complete, only 61 Americans had been killed in the war.5 The mission then devolved into an exercise in nation building, leading expenses in both blood and treasure to skyrocket. That flawed mission continues to this day.

Yes, Americans should hope that Afghanistan becomes a stable and prosperous democracy. But it is not fair to expect Americans to continue to pay tens of billions of dollars per year in a vague attempt at this dream, especially when Western money often makes matters worse through corruption.

A more achievable and affordable goal is for the United States to keep the country stable enough to support small American bases that can be used to strike any terrorist training camps or bases that might be used to attack America in the future. This is what America should have set up at the end of 2002 before it got so far off track. Unfortunately, there are no signs of this happening.

Even though Afghans have been taking over fighting the Taliban insurgency, American spending remains enormous. The White House budgeted $85 billion for overseas operations (largely in Afghanistan) for 2015, and plans for this to fall to a steady $30 billion per year in subsequent years.6 This is crazy. Consider that America only spent $20.8 billion to kick out the Taliban in 2001 and 2002 combined.7 What can possibly justify spending far more money on Afghanistan every single year than it cost to kick out the Taliban in the first place?

America's extended involvement in the war has created an unnecessarily bloated footprint that is hard to curtail. Judging by White House budget requests, even the anti-war Obama administration is unable to reign in this footprint.

Given a choice between continued waste and dysfunction and a total American withdrawal from Afghanistan, a total withdrawal is the proper choice. If the Afghan government nears collapse, or terrorist bases suddenly appear, the Americans could re-establish a new presence with a clean slate. Think this would be too expensive? Remember that kicking out the Taliban only cost $20 billion, compared with the status quo's projected $30 billion per year every single year.

Hamid Karzai may be hopelessly corrupt, and he may be half crazy. But Americans should listen to him when he says that U.S. forces should go. Karzai is right, even if for all the wrong reasons.

Related Web Columns:

Shifting the Front, June 28, 2011

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

Lessons for Victory in Afghanistan, July 8, 2008

Forever Taliban, June 27, 2006


1. PBS, Battlefield Vietnam Timeline, as posted March 25, 2014

2. Washington Post, NATO Agrees to Prepare for Complete Pullout from Afghanistan by End of Year, February 27, 2014

3. US News, Is Obama Right to Threaten to Withdraw All Troops from Afghanistan? February 28, 2014

4. National Priorities Project, Cost of War in Afghanistan Since 2001, as posted March 25, 2014

5., Coalition Deaths by Year, as posted March 24, 2014

6. Office of Management and Budget, The Budget for Fiscal Year 2015, February 2014

7. Center for Strategic and International Studies, The U.S. Cost of the Afghan War: FY2002-FY2013, May 14, 2012