Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter.
By James M. Lindsay, CFR.org
The tragic news that a U.S. Army sergeant slaughtered sixteen Afghans this week has scrambled the debate over the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Afghan president Hamid Karzai has demanded that the United States agree to pull back its troops to bases in Afghanistan by next year. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have discovered doubts about the wisdom of staying the course in Afghanistan.The public’s dissatisfaction with the war has hardened. A Gallup poll out this week found that 50 percent of Americans want Washington to speed up its withdrawal from Afghanistan; only 21 percent say stay the course.
The White House says it intends to stick by its plan to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops by 2014. Gen. John Allen, who commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan opposes “any form of accelerated drawdown,” so much so that he apparently wants to slow down the pace of President Obama’s proposed withdrawal once the so-called surge troops depart the country next fall. You can still find plenty of independent military experts who think that General Allen has it exactly right. Their impassioned defense of current policy in the face of tragic news touches that chord in all of us that resonates with Winston Churchill’s immortal words from 1941: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in.”
But Churchill ended that stirring call with a pretty big qualifier: “except to convictions of honor and good sense.” On that score, there are good reasons to doubt the wisdom of soldiering on in Afghanistan. One is that America’s track record in imposing peace and order is far from perfect. Yes, Washington succeeded in Germany and Japan (after wars that left both countries in ruins). But the list of countries where American occupations failed to produce the political stability that Washington was certain it could achieve is longer: Haiti, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Somalia.
The more important issue, though, is the one that Richard Haass raised two years ago: even if the objectives of the stay-the-course camp could be achieved, they aren’t worth it in terms of blood and treasure. Al Qaeda long ago ceased to be a factor in Afghanistan, and as U.S. counter-terrorist operations in places like Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahara implicitly attest, al Qaeda has plenty of “ungoverned spaces” from which to operate regardless of how things go in the Hindu Kush. Talk of the dire geopolitical consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is similarly overblown. The United States benefited from exiting Vietnam despite the ugliness of its departure. The same would be true in Afghanistan. So here’s to hoping that as the White House publicly channels Churchill’s admonition to “never give in,” that it is privately heeding his advice “to exercise good sense” and speed up the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of James M. Lindsay.
This is not a scientific poll.