In response to an excellent summary by Stephen Walt of the problem of the Afghan conflict, I wrote the following letter to focus attention on nature of an acceptable solution:
Leave Afghanistan? Absolutely–but leave responsibly.
Thinking of the current Afghan conflict as a complex system—and it certainly is one in every sense of the word—makes your well-reasoned argument for U.S. withdrawal all the stronger…but also offers some guidance to the way in which the U.S. should withdraw.
First, the complexity perspective tells us to look for feedbacks, and one of the most dangerous feedbacks (which you alluded to) is the impact of the U.S. presence on nationalist feeling: the more visible the U.S. military, the more support the Taliban will receive from Afghan nationalists. And one could amplify this point by citing innumerable additional negative feedbacks (e.g., radicalization of society, destruction of infrastructure) resulting from high-tech foreign military activity.
This leads to the second point, concerning the nature (and purpose) of a U.S. withdrawal. The question should not be, “Should the U.S. stay or leave?” The question should be, “How can the U.S. most effectively support the creation of a stable, well-governed, secure society?” Full application of American power to create a lackey state is exactly the wrong way. Rather, behind-the-scenes American support for civil society reforms guided by non-Western societies to create a viable, independent Afghan state should be the goal.
Starting from your analysis of the problem, Washington needs to move toward an Afghan, Muslim, Asian solution. That is the exit strategy for the U.S. and the road to peace for Afghanistan.
This is clearly not the current focus of Washington thinking. We need a concerted, organized project to create a plan by which the U.S. can retreat from the Afghan limelight without once again turning our backs on the long-mistreated Afghan people.
To summarize, I offer three principles for resolving not just the Afghan conflict but all the brushfires along the borders between the “American system” of global rule and the Muslim world:
- Muslim socio-political reform should be managed first by locals and second by neighboring non-Western societies;
- the method should always give precedence to civil society reform with military action firmly subordinated;
- the goal should not be incorporation into the American system but the establishment of an independent society.
Can Americans and their friends rise above the crisis of the moment to think through how we might plan such a solution? Behind the headlines and away from Washington decision-making circles, a huge amount of thought and research has gone into finding the answer in recent years. The knowledge to come up with such a plan is available, if only we can summon the will to create the plan and (of course) implement it.