Apparently America is having a debate on Afghanistan in the form of public opinion polls. Or to be more accurate, America might have a debate in the future having missed the last one.
“I've seen the public opinion polls saying that a majority of Americans don't support the effort at all,” Joint Chief of Staff Mike Mullen told the American Legion convention in Louisville. “I say, good. Let's have that debate, let's have that discussion. Let's take a good, hard look at this fight we're in, what we're doing and why. I'd rather see us, as a nation, argue about the war - struggling to get it right - than ignore it.”
Mr. Mullen is being disingenuous by lauding an illusionary discourse after America already held its debate on Afghanistan. President Obama pledged to finish “the good war” with extra combat brigades and he’s doing exactly as advertised. America may debate the Afghan war in the coming months, but the debate is irrelevant because Obama decided to escalate the war before he was elected.
A true debate cannot exist with only one side. Since President Obama and Admiral Mullen favor escalation, withdrawing from Afghanistan must be examined. At present, withdrawal is considered “retreat,” “loser talk,” “defeatism,” "Defeatocrats," or “running with our tail between our legs.” America must redefine withdrawal not just to open a real debate, but to increase America’s chances of success in Afghanistan.
That withdrawal equates to defeat is a myth dispelled by Iraq. Success is elusive and difficult to ascertain until Iraq undergoes several democratic transitions, polices its state, and grows its economy beyond the oil sector. By no means is Iraq safe or blossoming, but it’s holding together enough for America to relinquish authority. Iraq’s enigmatic future hasn’t stopped America from withdrawing nor have the many enemies it will leave behind.
After Hiroshima was bombed the Japanese deliberated surrender while preparing for an invasion. Only after Nagasaki, when their will to resist was broken, did they admit defeat. Given that Americans will primarily be fighting guerrillas for the next 50 years, they should delve into a guerrilla’s head. Mao Zedong said defeat is a state of mind, one the Taliban is unlikely to know - and neither should Americans. Americans must rid themselves of the notion that withdrawal means defeat. This mindset is defeat.
If America withdraws its combat brigades from Afghanistan and continue its war with other methods, this cannot be termed defeat.
Many American, Afghan, and Pakistani officials admit that political reconciliation with the Taliban's Pashtun base is crucial to an exit strategy, yet they refuse to negotiate with Mullah Omar, the CEO. Such refusal is akin to rejecting all negotiations with the Taliban and entails a pure military solution, contrary to the political solution American officials often advertise. Winning over low level, “moderate,” or even second tier leaders won’t dent the Taliban’s political leadership. Omar is still the key to the door.
To actually reach a political agreement with him, as President Karzai advocates, requires an American withdrawal.
Assume for theoretical purposes that President Obama orders a phased withdrawal. Mullah Omar enters into negotiations with the Afghan government and American officials, during which his relationship with al-Qaeda is terminated in exchange for political appointments. Omar has stated that he has no reason to attack America without an occupation, meaning he has less use for Osama bin Laden. America is the true bond between the two, not religion. Remove the bond and perhaps the link will weaken to the point of exploitation.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged that beyond combat years Afghanistan needs 30 years of development or more, necessitating thousands of American and foreign civilian contractors. Instead of American protection, Afghanistan’s own security forces must assume the role. The army and police need a vast increase in funds despite the recent boost in attention; plenty of resources would free up if America withdrew its main force and allocated the capital to training Afghans. America’s military focus would then redouble counter-terrorism beyond Afghanistan’s borders and funnel excess funds into Afghan reconstruction. Reparations may also be a possibility to make amends.
Withdrawal is no sure thing, but neither is occupation. America is so absorbed with saving face that it’s endangering its military. Withdrawal isn’t automatic defeat, but a means of preserving a fighting force and redeploying resources. Defeat is failing to militarily eliminate the Taliban - a mission America seems to be pursuing despite Admiral Mullen conceding is improbable.
Octopus Mountain accepts Admiral Mullen's challenge and looks forward to debating options for Afghanistan. Name the time and place. We'll be there.