Marc Lynch weighs in:
Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasas, into Africa — into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget?
Curiously missing from this line of reasoning, and other similarly well-thought out arguments, is the regional dimension. Violent extremism emanating from conflict-torn Afghanistan is destabilising a nuclear-armed state and threatening to spark a wider confrontation. There are few places on Earth where transnational Islamic terrorism, regional rivalries, ethnic strife and weapons of mass destruction form such a toxic potpourri. Somalia isn’t one of them, nor is Yemen, and devastating though it has been, the war in Congo has never threatened to engulf a whole continent in radioactive dust.
I was an early skeptic of the war in Afghanistan and have been a vocal critic of how successive Finnish governments have allowed us to drift into it without explaining to the electorate why we should invest so much into stabilising this godforsaken country.
Yet, as the war effort has faltered and the Taleban have staged their spectacular comeback, I have become convinced that it is in our best interest not to let Kabul fall, because the consequences would be devastating for the whole of South Asia. In short, it’s not about 9/11; it’s about world peace.
The reason is simple: While I don’t subscribe to the view that Pakistan is about to collapse, I find it all too conceivable that its nuclear weapons may fall into the wrong hands. And by this I don’t mean some brilliant night time heist, or sale to the highest bidder. All you need is an Islamist-backed military coup, and the stage is set for war with India. Indeed, one well-executed terror operation might be enough to spark a nuclear exchange, as the attack on Indian Parliament almost did in 2001. As Judah Grunstein eloquently put it after Mumbai:
Through a convergence of terrorists’ savvy with the structural changes in the mediasphere, an enormously disproportionate impact can be brought to bear by applying what really amounts to minute pressure to geopolitical faultlines. To give an idea, based on these World Bank automobile statistics, more people died of car accidents in India on the day of the attacks than in the attacks themselves. But we are now seriously and soberly considering the possibility of a worst-case scenario that involves nuclear war.
Do we need 101,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan to stop someone from applying that “minute pressure”? No, if we could do it with less, but I’m pretty sure we need more. I simply think the minimalist alternative is no longer on the table. That time passed 4-5 years ago, when we allowed the Taleban to regroup and paid no attention to the Islamist-pampering general on the other side of Durand Line. Our cock-ups in Afghanistan have probably exacerbated the problems in Pakistan; but our withdrawal would not correct the situation. And if the terrorists just set up shop somewhere else? So much the better — they may still attack the U.S. and Europe, but they will cease to be a factor in South Asian geopolitics.
In the Lowy Interpreter, Sam Roggeveen wonders how convincing arguments like these would be if we weren’t in Afghanistan already:
Would we now advocate an invasion and long-term occupation of Afghanistan to stabilise the Indian Ocean region, reduce the chances of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, disrupt drug supplies, protect energy sources, substitute for the lack of a regional security framework and discourage Pakistani cooperation with the Taliban? More to the point, have any of these problems been reduced or made more manageable by the Western presence in Afghanistan? How?
No, they wouldn’t be convincing at all. But here’s the thing: We realised AIDS was a problem only after someone died; there still isn’t a cure, yet no one is saying all that research has been in vain. In other words, without 9/11 we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan, but I seriously doubt things would be better in South Asia. In fact, I would argue that the Western presence in Afghanistan and the simultaneous diplomatic efforts have indeed reduced the chances of an atomic war between India and Pakistan. They certainly haven’t made it more likely.