Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

It's OK: Abandon Afghanistan

Jonathan Shine


July 22, 2011
by Jonathan Shine

This is the first of two responses to President Obama’s announcement regarding troup withdrawals in Afghanistan.

Maybe “abandon” is too strong, but I confess that I found myself guiltily applauding when President Obama announced a larger and faster-than-anticipated drawdown of forces from Afghanistan, even though I think the result is likely to be bloody and painful for the Afghans.  “Guiltily” because I hate departing without a win.  More so because the believer-citizen must always presume that, having gone abroad to break things and kill people, we will finish with the job well and nobly done.  Dad’s frequent axiom, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” never ended with, “…home, because they’re tired and out of good ideas.”  Just War Doctrine requires that in going to war we determine that there is a good chance of achieving the just ends that validate the evils of warfare. 

Where does a citizen of heaven—still yet a soldier—get off claiming that it’s OK for us to cut our losses and get out as soon as we can (as recent polls show a majority favor doing)?  Although apparently more stable than ever, it’s hard to see the future of Afghanistan as anything but bleak.  The most likely outcome of our current glide path seems to be a resurgent, Pakistan-based Taliban returning to rule part of the country, a chronically dysfunctional government controlled by variously competing factions of drug-running strongmen in Kabul, education and infrastructure that are only marginally better than in 2001, and overall a still-impoverished country subject to the whims of neighboring governments.  I’m already bracing myself for the old shots of the last Soviet tanks crossing the bridge in 1989 played on split screen next to footage of our last flight out.  Thinking of it in light of brothers-in-arms who sacrificed all is anguishing.  It sure feels like justice demands a better outcome than that from the world’s only superpower.

We are still trying for something much, much better than that; the church universal should be praying for it.  President Obama’s recent surge of troops has been successful in creating some necessary “breathing room,” as a similar surge provided in Iraq when all seemed lost.  But the similarities to Iraq end there.  Afghanistan’s economic prospects remain grim: no oil revenues to count on.  Without Iraq’s base of experienced, educated bureaucrats and security forces, Afghanistan’s chances for even minimally effective governance look pretty dismal by comparison, especially with corruption beyond anyone’s will to control. 

But where does the “you broke it, you bought it” obligation end?  The US certainly never imagined being there for 10 years, let alone for the generations that some Generals suggest are necessary to truly stabilize the place.  It is by no means clear that staying longer will make things any better; Afghanistan already appears to be suffering from a colonial-style sense of both overdependence and victimhood.  Our prospects for success are limited under any but the longest of long-range scenarios, so departing in the next three years (current NATO policy is to turn over security to the Afghans by 2014) would seem to have as good a chance for success as some longer timeline.  We have provided a lot of money, training, and education and a little breathing room: at what point have we done enough to make resultant failures “their” responsibility instead of ours?

Add to that consideration the state of our economy and the laudable concern of our leaders for the sustainability of our national debt.  At the end of the Iraq surge, we were not feeling our debt and growth challenges so acutely.  As the world’s superpower, we are legitimately, to a certain extent, our international brothers’ keeper (especially those that we’ve invaded).  But what is that extent?  I think we’ve pretty much reached it.  In a time of strained resources it makes sense (it is just!) to look to the needs of our own people before overextending our largesse to the rest of the world.

Perhaps I am hyperbolic to suggest that it’s OK for the citizen of both heaven and the USA to decide we’ll abandon Afghanistan, but our current policy of relatively rapid military disengagement, even with the prospect of ultimate failure looming large, is at the same time logical, reasonable, and, given the alternatives, just.  We’re right to feel uncomfortable with the damage we have done in Afghanistan and disappointed with our failure to turn it into South Korea.  Still it’s OK, even just, to count our pennies, set a timeline, and go home.

—Jonathan Shine is Major in the United States Army.  The views presented are his own and do not reflect those of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”