Suppose 9/11 never happened.
In Afghanistan, the Taleban celebrate their 13th year in power. In neighbouring Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf or another military dictator is toasting with them, comfortable in the knowledge that his country’s strategic interests are safe. Across the world, high-profile attacks by terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan are met with shock and horror, but no one is suggesting military intervention — after all, in the larger scheme of things this is a mere nuisance.
Then terrorists flying hijacked airplanes strike at the heart of India’s capital Delhi, wiping out the entire parliament and killing the prime minister.
Pakistan denies involvement, but India mobilises. A fighter jet is shot down, a town shelled, an incursion repelled. Both sides issue veiled threats as cries of total war grow louder.
Then terrorists strike again, this time in Mumbai, killing hundreds.
And then, just like that, before the outside world can utter a word, missiles are launched.
Years later, when the costs are counted, it is said, with some pride, that clearing the radioactive ruins of Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore and Islamabad is the greatest undertaking mankind has ever attempted.
If you think this is just an alarmist fantasy, well, what can I say — I don’t. In fact, I think it may be too optimistic. In reality, were the Taleban to return to power in Afghanistan today, they would be immensely more powerful, dedicated and internationalist in their outlook than they were in 2001. After years of jihad alongside al-Qaeda and other international militants, they would not merely allow terrorist organisations to use Afghanistan as a base; they would encourage it. Naturally, toppling the Pakistani government by supporting their Pashtun brethren would be high on the Taleban to-do list, as they would want to see a friendly, ISI-backed general return to power in Islamabad. In turn, they would gladly help in providing him with the terrorist cannon fodder he would need for his covert operations in India.
I respect and admire Stephen Walt, Michael Cohen and Bernard Finel, and I find many of their arguments for scaling down our involvement in Afghanistan seductive. But so far they’ve shown little understanding for the geopolitical dimensions of the conflict. They’re skillful at pointing out false narratives about the terrorist threat to the U.S., yet curiously myopic when it comes to the potentially devastating effects a single terrorist-growing failed state in South Asia can have on that nuclear-armed region.
For example, Finel writes:
[…] The Taliban — if it did seize power, which is no sure thing — would likely find itself starved for resources to maintain itself in power. Indeed, it is probably as likely that efforts to retain control would drain resources currently devoted to the campaign in Pakistan. This may be one reason, by the way, why Pakistan was under less threat from Islamist radicals from 1996 to 2001 when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan then in the years since.
Actually, no. Pakistan was under no threat from the Taleban or its own Islamists because it supported them. Power-hungry generals and clueless civilians had been pampering the extreme fringe for years to bolster their domestic support and control Afghanistan. A toxic swamp of radicalism, self-interest and megalomania had formed in what is now called “AfPak”, and from this sludge grew terrorist organisations with global ambitions. Without access to the training grounds of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s intelligence service would’ve found it difficult to build the militant armies it sent to invade Indian-controlled Kashmir in the early 90s; and without Kashmir in flames, the nuclear close-calls of 1999 and 2001 never would have happened.
Do we need 101,000 soldiers in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan and India from going to war? Yes — for lack of a better alternative. We need them there simply because we cannot pull them out. We cannot withdraw, we cannot scale down, and we certainly cannot turn the war into a counter-terrorist operation. Without our involvement the Taleban would be back in Kabul. Worse still, we wouldn’t have had the accompanying diplomatic efforts that have already prevented at least one regional flare-up, after Mumbai.
[UPDATE: Bernard Finel proposes an alternative strategy. More later.]