Bin Laden Is Dead: Is It Time to Leave Afghanistan?

Minutes after word leaked to the media that President Obama would soon be announcing Osama bin Laden’s death, the comment boards were already filling with cheers of “mission accomplished”—triumphantly by some (“we got him!”), sarcastically by others (Obama’s announcement came eight years to the day after President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on Iraq). Some in both camps were already arguing that bin Laden’s death calls for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan: we did what we went there to do, so why delay?

In fact, the drawdown from Afghanistan is already scheduled to begin this summer and is anticipated to end in 2014, but this news surely will intensify the debate about how steep the off-ramp should be. Those who think the U.S. mission should be tightly focused on al Qaeda will argue for a much steeper ramp than those who believe U.S. interests on terrorism are best served by a counterinsurgency strategy that includes significant state-building efforts.

This debate turns on the question of governance: when we leave, we need to be sure that whoever is running the country is willing and able to suppress the anti-American ambitions of bin Laden’s successors and those he has inspired. At the moment, the Afghan government is nowhere near capable of doing that on its own, which is why the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban includes ambitious efforts to strengthen the government and its armed forces at the same time.

Having spent the past year researching Afghan governance and its role in U.S. strategy, I have come to two conclusions: The bad news is that our ambitions for the Afghan government exceed what is possible; the good news is that our ambitions also exceed what is necessary.

The good news means that our strategic objectives do not require an Afghan government as legitimate and capable as some military plans and development strategies demand, meaning that the U.S. mission could be more tightly focused. But the bad news means that governance—not just the government, but all the informal institutions and traditional practices that affect stability and the public good—is in such poor condition today that even a more limited set of ambitions will require many years to achieve. In other words, both sides of the debate over the drawdown have it half right. Neither a rapid drawdown nor massive state building will do the trick.

Risks of a Rapid Drawdown

There are two reasons bin Laden’s death should not have us running for the exits just yet.

First, while his death certainly is an important event, in strategic terms it is mainly symbolic: a symbol of U.S. strength and perseverance, to be sure, but symbolic as well in the sense that, for people who still want to attack Americans, he was less a commander and more a source of inspiration—and now he is a martyr. It is not clear that the Taliban and its affiliated networks will fight any less hard this summer, or will be any more interested in peace talks, just because the man they blame for getting them removed from power has finally died. It is not likely that Pakistan’s calculations of its strategic interests will change either—it still considers India its biggest threat and a Pakistan-friendly regime in Afghanistan its best insurance against encirclement. Many of the most violent actors in Afghanistan could not care less about bin Laden’s death: the organized criminals and warlords who profit from instability have every reason to keep things unstable. Until the Afghanistan-Pakistan border can be controlled (not in our lifetimes), instability in Afghanistan can affect stability in Pakistan—or vice versa—and with 180 million people and a couple dozen nuclear weapons, an unstable Pakistan potentially has much more serious consequences for regional security.

In other words, bin Laden’s death only marginally affects any of the main drivers of instability in Afghanistan.

Second, even if instability in Afghanistan could be contained within its borders, the United States owes it to the Afghan people not to leave them worse off than they already are. Actually, there are both moral and strategic reasons to be sure the U.S. drawdown is paced in a way that does not leave Afghans open to the depredations of the criminals, warlords, and insurgents who surely would fight to fill any vacuum we’d leave behind.

The moral argument is along the lines of “you break it, you own it.” We Americans tend to view ourselves as a force for good in the world, so if our government takes down someone else’s government, it would be consistent with that moral vision to be sure we replaced it with something that is able at least to keep the peace without depending on our presence.

The strategic argument is: If we leave Afghans with a government that can’t keep the peace, then we will be repeating a mistake we made in Pakistan 20 years ago. After we had armed the Pakistan-based mujahideen—including bin Laden himself—to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviets left—and so did we. The mostly Pashtun fighters we had armed and the mostly Punjabi officials we had partnered with in Pakistan felt that we had used them when convenient and abandoned them when they were no longer immediately useful. And Pakistanis have never forgiven us for it. Fairly or not, our promises of a strategic partnership ring so hollow among the Pakistani people today because, in their view, they’ve seen this movie before. If we leave behind an unstable Afghanistan, we run the risk that an entire generation of Afghans might come to feel the same way, and it is not clear we can afford to have two countries in that region of the world filled with people who mistrust us that much.

Risks of Rapid State Building

Afghanistan’s government is not yet up to the task of keeping the peace in Afghanistan. The Afghan constitution stipulates an extremely centralized system, but the central government does not have anywhere near the capacity it needs to run the country. Provincial and district governments do not have the authority or resources to do much without the central government’s involvement. The country’s traditional and tribal institutions have been so degraded by decades of war that they are at least as susceptible to corruption by criminals and infiltration by insurgents as state institutions are. The Afghan government has neither the capacity to oversee, nor the resources to pay for, its own security forces, and NATO has far too few trainers available to build those forces to the levels currently planned. Rapid growth of under-trained security forces in the absence of civilian institutions capable of paying them or holding them accountable for results and abuses is not exactly a recipe for stability.

But none of that argues in favor of rapid state building: governance in Afghanistan will not become “good” in the way the international community has defined it for at least a generation. In the short term, it just needs to be “good enough” that Afghans in power govern in a way that is predictable, minimally acceptable to Afghans, friendly to U.S. security, and capable of removing the worst abusers from power. Achieving that will require smart politics and uncomfortable trade-offs—not rapid state building.
In fact, the main catalyst for Afghanistan’s corruption is the sheer amount of international attention and uncontrolled money being fire-hosed into that country in the form of military contracts, expensive aid projects, electoral reforms, technical capacity building, formal decentralization, international contractors and advisers, and other common elements of international state-building portfolios. Tightening that spigot would go a long way toward drying up the main sources of corruption.

Of all the malign actors who have passed through Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is not the one most Afghans have been concerned about, not for some years. There are too many other criminals, insurgents, warlords, and corrupt government officials to worry about—even among the U.S. military’s own local security contractors and government partners.

Most Afghans want peace, and many have dedicated themselves to bringing it about: by joining the Afghan civil service and the security forces, by working with civil society organizations and the media, and by participating in their own communities’ development. It is their country and ultimately their responsibility for fixing it. The United States and the rest of the international community can help, but the best we can do is act as a catalyst for the good work of those dedicated Afghans and as a bane to the malign actors getting in their way.

Too-rapid state building or too-rapid withdrawal would empower the malign and undermine the benign. Modest objectives and the patience to achieve them—even with bin Laden’s death—that is the combination with the best hope of ensuring that his legacy in Afghanistan does not outlive the man himself.

Robert D. Lamb is senior fellow and deputy director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation (C3) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Robert D. Lamb