At the height of the Vietnam War, with U.S. casualties mounting and military progress limited, Lyndon Johnson called an old Senate colleague, George Aiken. The president asked his friend, who had been in the Senate since 1941, what he should do about Vietnam. Claim victory and get out, Mr. Aiken said. Mr. Johnson did not heed his friend's advice.
Getting out of war, unless unconditional surrender is the objective, is often harder than going into war. So it is in Afghanistan, where bombs began falling on Kabul in 2001 to oust the Taliban.
Eleven years later, NATO forces (and Australians and New Zealanders) are still in Afghanistan. The Americans are turning over some new assignments to the Afghan army, and U.S. troops are supposed to be drawn down swiftly in 2013 and be gone by 2014 – after which, who knows?
Last weekend, Washington and Kabul drafted an agreement that would see the Americans supporting the Afghan government for a decade after U.S. combat forces leave. That would stretch the U.S. commitment from 2001 to 2024, with the post-2014 period given over to U.S. help for building democratic institutions and economic development.
It has been reported that the Americans are looking for $4-billion a year for Afghanistan. The U.S. would put perhaps $2.7-billion on the table, while the cap is being passed around the NATO table for another $1.3-billion.
So Canada, it would appear, will be asked to make yet another long-term commitment in money to a country that has already become the largest recipient of Canadian foreign aid. In addition, Canada might be asked to keep providing trainers or other non-combat personnel in the country. Asked about this possibility in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government will "examine all options."
That's a prudent reply for the moment, since the entire Afghan file will be front and centre when NATO heads of government meet in Chicago in three weeks. But Mr. Harper would be wise when long-term commitments are sought to recall George Aiken's advice: Declare victory and quit while you're behind.
No matter what sums NATO expends in Afghanistan after its forces leave, the country is likely to enter a period of fracture marked by political instability, ethnic conflict and perhaps civil war.
The Taliban in the Pashtun south have not gone away. They continue to retreat into Pakistan or melt into their Afghan community, organizing periodic attacks such as the ones in Kabul two weeks ago. The Hamid Karzai government is corrupt to the core and of little relevance beyond Kabul in the provinces, where warlords again run the show. Nearby countries (Pakistan, India and Iran) will pursue their interests in Afghanistan, and NATO members will have limited ability to stop them.
NATO countries, then, will quite likely be asked to throw good money after bad if they agree to spend billions over a decade in a country whose destiny will be shaped by domestic forces and pressure from nearby nations over which NATO will have little or no control.
Such spending and ongoing quasi-military commitments would belie what we know of Afghan history – namely, that outside (Western) powers come and outside powers go, but the essence of post-medieval, tribal, decentralized, fractious Afghanistan remains, almost as if the outsiders had never been there.
It was hubristic in the extreme for NATO militaries and governments to believe otherwise. For that hubris, Canada suffered 158 military fatalities and 635 wounded. In the beginning, a limited, legitimate objective beckoned: to replace the Taliban government that had harboured al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda decamped long ago. It's now far more menacing in the Sahel region of Africa, pockets of the Middle East and Pakistan than in Afghanistan.
Cultural misunderstandings feed on themselves: U.S. soldiers burn the Koran and outrage ensues; a U.S. soldier shoots 17 villagers; drone strikes kill civilians; 20 NATO soldiers are killed in an ambush. Those who had arrived to help become to be seen as occupiers.
Massive majorities in every NATO country want participation ended in a war with fuzzy goals and a weak likelihood of success. The majorities are right.