Afghanistan: Why We Should Stay, Post-Osama

US President Barack Obama speaks while flanked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai (L) and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (R).

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show,Fred Kaplan, "War Stories" columnist at Slate and a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, discussed how the Obama Administration should handle the war in Afghanistan in a post-Osama world.

After bin Laden, withdrawal?

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, does a continued U.S. operation in Afghanistan have any legitimacy? Do we need to stay? Have we accomplished our goal? And can we even agree on what it was in the first place?

Fred Kaplan addressed the arguments for and against staying in a recent article in Slate. In conversation with Brian Lehrer today, Kaplan said that to believe our mission stopped with one man, even back at the war's beginning, was a gross oversimplification of America's international strategy after 9/11.

Most of the people making this argument are being kind of dishonest about it. The reason we went in was not simply to get bin Laden; in fact, it was to stabilize Afghanistan so that it can no longer serve as a sanctuary for international terrorists. 

Most factions of the Taliban were not directly connected to bin Laden to begin with. The demise of bin Laden really, logically, shouldn't affect much in their calculation of whether or not to continue fighting the war.

More than a war on terror

For those against continued intervention in the Middle East, bin Laden's death felt like a long overdue period at the end of a run-on sentence. But Fred Kaplan said that the greatest opportunity offered us at this point is not to pack up and come home: it's to expand the scope of tactical U.S. operations and gain diplomatic leverage in a number of international relationsips.

Something not pursued, and a crucial aspect, is to step up the resolution of conflict to a regional level. The big problem with Pakistan is that their major fear is India, that's their existential threat. They have an interest in having influence inside of Afghanistan regardless of bin Laden or anybody else...They want strategic depth against a possible India attack. India is pursuing interests in Afghanistan quite actively. This is much more than a war on terror, this is regional politics, local politics, tribal politics, and we might use this opportunity as a way to gain leverage and get settlements in all these realms.

Obama's premature promise

"The place would fall apart," Kaplan says of Afghanistan, should we stick with President Obama's July deadline to begin withdrawing troops. "Let's not make any pretenses about it."

Kaplan argued that insiders now view Obama's deadline, which was most popular with his Democratic base, as unwise. It deals the Taliban a fresh hand in their efforts to win over the Afghani public—but it also gives the U.S. a big advantage, if the President changes his mind.

That Obama announced his policy to put more troops in Afghanistan, then said they would start to pull out in July 2011, that's now seen as a mistake. Maybe he needed to say it to put pressure on Karzai to get serious about reform, but it really told everyone else—the Taliban, Pakistan, Afghanistan—that America is getting out. 

I've heard reports that the Taliban would go into villages that were trying to support American and Afghan government policy and say, 'Listen, the Americans are leaving in July 2011, but we're still gonna be here.' It could be that when July and August float around and U.S. forces are still present in large numbers, and in fact stepping up offensives, that everyone who thought that we're leaving might have a real turnaround and might start distrusting the Taliban even more.'Hey, you told me the Americans were leaving, but I still see them. I'm going to recalculate.'

'Until about two years ago, there was no strategy'

These were perhaps the most unsettling words to come out of Fred Kaplan's mouth. Though Kaplan advocates continued presence in Afghanistan, he's deeply critical of the war's history. Specifically, he lays blame at the feet of the Bush administration and their military plan for the Middle East, which had us looking in all directions without ever getting the original job done.

Until about two years ago, there was no strategy in Afghanistan, not in the sense of strategy meaning anything. We kicked out the Taliban, then moved on to Iraq. That was when everything fell apart. Instead of racking up the victory, stabilizing things—an action that would have been an easy thing to do back then, as al-Qaeda was pretty much destroyed by Bush's initial invasion of Afghanistan and rolling up of their financial connections. It was pretty much a done deal until we invaded Iraq, diverted resources from Afghanistan, created a new recruitment poster for Islamists who might be susceptible to the lures of bin Laden, and that's where things went wrong.

Recurring nightmare

Fred Kaplan thinks we should stay, but it's a lesser-of-two-evils argument at heart. To exit now would be to repeat a glaring mistake in recent memory: pulling out of the same country decades ago once we thought the Soviets were gone, opening a power vacuum that the Taliban would go on to fill. Kaplan points to that error to highlight that staying has its price, but leaving will take its toll.

It's a nightmare, but do we get out of there leaving something in place? A deal? Foundations for some kind of political settlement that has even a measly chance of enduring? Or do we just get out and let the place fall to pieces again and someone has to come in and plug the holes once more.