Friday, January 17, 2014

It wasn't supposed to be about the Taliban

Somehow over the course of the last twelve and one-half years, people like Graeme Smith have completely forgotten the point of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Let's start with the real basics: The U.S. and its allies got involved because Osama Bin Laden and his al Qaeda network were to blame for the 9/11 attack. OBL and other al Qaeda leaders were living in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, and so the U.S. demanded that the Taliban hand Bin Laden and others over or face dire consequences. The Taliban did not comply, and that's how America and the rest of NATO came to attack Taliban forces in Afghanistan. In a relatively short period of time, the Taliban lost control of most of the country and went into hiding, some in Pakistan and some in rural areas of Afghanistan. With the collapse of Taliban controlled areas, al Qaeda leaders no longer enjoyed their protections and were captured, killed or went into hiding, mostly in Pakistan.

The war was never primarily about the Taliban. For five years prior to 2001, that movement had conquered significant parts of Afghanistan and it was not considered to be the West's fight. It only became part of the U.S.'s national interest to the extent that the movement was protecting militants who wanted to attack the U.S.

Is the Afghan Taliban still shielding what is left of al Qaeda? It's not clear to me that they are. And people like Graeme Smith don't help for when people argue for a continued presence of American forces in Afghanistan they don't bother to say. The Taliban have become the enemy itself instead of just the group standing in the way of the real enemy.

I fully acknowledge that the Taliban are awful. Their treatment of women and religious minorities is atrocious, and their extreme interpretation of Shari'a oppresses everyone who is under the areas they control. But there are a lot of awful regimes in the world. The Taliban's awfulness alone does not justify a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, any more than it justifies a U.S. military presence in Katanga, DRC, or Northern Nigeria.

I'm all for a discussion about whether it is a good idea for the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan (I think it clearly is), but it is not a serious discussion if the anti-withdrawal people only talk about how the Taliban will make gains if the U.S. leaves.