Canada has her exit strategy from Afghanistan: come next year, we are just going to walk. Minor Europeans (they are all minor, even when aggregated, in contemporary military terms) find no serious difficulty in doing the same, under pressure from electorates that no longer see the point of fighting in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration declared a similar 2011 wind-down, or wind-off, in advance; though in the American case, leaving can’t be so easy—they’re the ones who must turn off the lights—and I doubt anyone in State or Defence seriously thinks they can quietly check out, after the much-advertised “surge” never happens.
For the result of an American exit would be ugly: the probable return to power of exactly the party that sheltered al-Qaeda, and made 9/11 possible.
Moreover, thanks to his reputation, and the circumstances of his appointment, Gen. David Petraeus may be making the call, and not the president. To his credit, he never tried to manoeuvre himself into a position stronger than his civilian superiors—which is anathema to the U.S. constitution. It just happened that way, from “events,” while the attention of the administration was fixed elsewhere. And while I admire Petraeus myself, as a remarkably capable general, I am not edified by the spectacle of a man in uniform exercising political power—thanks to a president who knows he will not himself be trusted on military decisions, and has diminishing political capital to expend.
What Obama could do—thanks to the earlier success of the same Petraeus’s “surge” in Iraq, and an Iraqi domestic political arrangement that is arguably stable—was announce a formal end to U.S. military operations in Iraq. This passed almost without comment, and should have compelled more journalistic investigation.
The question: Is it not in U.S. and Western interest to maintain a considerable, battle-ready military presence, right in the heart of the Middle East as a strong discouragement to reckless adventures by any of Iraq’s neighbours? For if, as we have heard, the policy towards a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran is to be “containment,” there must be forces to actually contain.
The Cold War containment policy towards the Soviet Union necessarily involved a large NATO presence in West Germany, and the creation through that and other means of a visible trip-wire. The strategy, which ultimately depended on the “Mutual Assured Destruction” of nuclear ICBMs, was crazy, and perhaps morally indefensible, but it worked. Within their own sphere of influence, the Soviets were left—to crush rebellions in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia—but one boot over the line into Western Europe and they’d be depressing the MAD button.
The Cold War analogy will not work in the Middle East, however, where the West has enemies who are not quite sane. In particular, while they give many signs of bazaar cunning, Iran’s ayatollahs are not committed to an ideology of dull materialism. They are instead committed to an apocalyptic religious vision, which with all its heresy (in strict Islamic terms), might actually prefer to trigger international catastrophe, rather than suffer ignominious domestic collapse.
In such a case, substantial forward bases, maintained in a state of readiness for war, are just the thing: to convince the Iranian regime that any false move would entail their own apocalyptic end, only.
Selling such an aggressive forward policy to Western electorates, who must pay for it, was never going to be easy. And George Bush essentially failed as salesman, partly through his own incoherence. With Barack Obama, the chances are zero: he would not dream of defending U.S. interests in so decisive a way. At best, for the length of his tenure, we can hope for some puzzled dithering, in which regardless of his own rhetoric he allows U.S. troops to dawdle in theatre, and their actual presence in turn provides some modest deterrent value.
But of course, while they remain, committed to a war in Afghanistan that can only be won with hard brutal decision (as Vietnam could have been won with hard brutal decision), they are targets for the Taliban. Western electorates will accept military casualties in a war that has some apparent point, and where the possibility of victory is defined. We have no patience for bloody dawdling.
Yet that may be the best available strategy, all round.
It is now eight years since I first brought some minor attention to what I called the “flypaper strategy.” Simply stated, it made sense to draw the world’s most incendiary Islamist “flies” towards sweet “martyrdoms” in Iraq or Afghanistan. More crudely: it is a good thing when aspiring terrorists, hatched in radical European and North American mosques, travel to Afghanistan to get themselves killed. For otherwise they would be focusing on the possibilities for bombing, demonstrated in places like Madrid and London.
In effect, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan means carrying all the flypaper home.