By Shep Gerszberg
The U.S.’s continued presence in Afghanistan has been maligned by critics of the Iraq war, the usual critics of U.S. interference abroad and multiple international observers culminating this past week with International Criminal Court (ICC) accusations of U.S. war crimes in the region.
I am not going to defend war crimes. If the actions the ICC claims happened, in fact, occurred, that is reprehensible and should be punished accordingly. However, these actions don’t invalidate the continued need for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The simple fact is that advocates for an immediate U.S. withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan have a simplistic and naïve understanding of geopolitics and how interconnected every region and every action is when it comes to this field. We simply cannot pull out of Afghanistan without risking massive chaos and instability in a region where chaos can easily hurt the U.S.
The two main benefits of the American army’s continued presence in Afghanistan are their support for and sustention of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, as well as their suppression of the many rebel and radical groups who have sprung up in the region due to the instability.
If the U.S. were to pull out of Afghanistan wholesale, and were not replaced by some other peacekeeping group designed to ensure relative stability, it is likely that militant groups would continue to grow and gain more power, which would have a massive destabilizing effect for the entire region. Obviously, this destabilizing force would begin with Afghanistan, likely ending in the removal of the U.S. backed government, but it also has the potential to become far more dangerous by spreading to India and Pakistan.
The effects of a destabilized Afghanistan may not have huge international consequences in and of itself, aside from a growth in terrorist funding and support coming from Kabul, as well as human rights issues within Afghanistan, but the destabilizing forces could easily cross into other countries such as Pakistan and destabilize their governments.
This would be far more dangerous seeing as Pakistan is a nuclear power. If rebel groups from Afghanistan were allowed to grow unabated and spread into Pakistan and got ahold of nuclear weapons, there is no telling the kind of harm they can do. That risk, in and of itself, should be enough incentive for us to remain in Afghanistan and ensure that these groups are not allowed to spread unchecked.
Additionally, India and Pakistan have been embroiled in a longstanding conflict. The details of the conflict are too expansive to go into here but suffice to say, they do not like each other. The important thing to note is that India supports the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and Pakistan supports many of the rebel groups.
India has indicated that if the U.S. backs out of Afghanistan, they would be forced to take more drastic action to prevent the spread of these groups because they understand the threat that they pose through their influence in neighboring Pakistan. If this happens, it is likely that Pakistan, India’s traditional enemy, will take more drastic action as well. This situation could escalate into an all-out proxy war fought between two nuclear powers in Afghanistan.
Sound familiar? This situation mirrors the cold war fought between the U.S. and Russia. The cold war had massive negative effects on the economies and both the U.S. and Russia. The Soviet Union collapsed due to the economic harm the Cold War inflicted on them and the U.S.’s debt problem can trace itself back to the military spending increases of that period.
A new cold war fought between India and Pakistan could greatly harm the Indian economy, the sixth largest economy in the world, which would in turn harm the U.S. economy because of the interconnected global economic system.
Geopolitics is complicated. However, as much as we wish we could just pull back from the world and stop spending money and risking American lives overseas, it just is not that simple. We wish it could be that simple because simplicity is comforting, whereas complexity is scary. But we can’t just run away from the world because that would harm the world, which in turn would hurt us because the simple reality is that we are a part of the world.
The war in Afghanistan is a complex issue and, however much I wish we didn’t have to spend both money and human lives, life is not ideal sometimes. The idea of “America First” is an appealing one, but it is an idea that shrouds itself in simplicity, that, while comforting, simply doesn’t exist when it comes to global politics and conflict. That is why President Trump has implemented policies that move away from his isolationistic rhetoric during last year’s campaign.
Geopolitics is complex, the world is interconnected, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can discuss how to begin to fix the many issues that continue to threaten our country.