A Plea for Common Sense: Why NATO Should Withdraw from Afghanistan

A Commentary by Christoph Schwennicke

It is difficult for politicians to admit they were wrong. But when it comes to Afghanistan, the consequences of not doing so could be high. It is time for the West to cut its losses and withdraw.

Western electorates are becoming impatient with the war in Afghanistan. Zoom
REUTERS

Western electorates are becoming impatient with the war in Afghanistan.

The most difficult thing to do in politics is to change course -- admitting that everything that was right yesterday is wrong today. It is a particularly challenging maneuver when the decision is between war and peace.

Winston Churchill, stubborn as he was, never could admit that he had made a mistake in 1915 when, as first lord of the Admiralty, his strategic error helped lead to the bitter defeat of the Entente troops at the hands of the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli. Similarly, it took 30 years for former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to acknowledge that the Vietnam War had been a mistake.

The German government, NATO and the West shouldn't wait that long. Together they should realize -- and admit -- that the war in Afghanistan is not going to end in success. We have failed. The war has been lost. The country that we leave behind will not be pacified. It is possible that we could have been successful had we understood earlier how the country works. But now, we are no longer a part of the solution -- increasingly, we have become part of the problem. It is best just to leave now, before additional blood is spilled. The secret war logs given by WikiLeaks to SPIEGEL confirm as much.

Led by the US, NATO and other Western allies have been trying to pacify Afghanistan for almost 10 years -- with little success. War aims have changed frequently. None of them, however, has been achieved. The intervals between the large-scale Afghanistan conferences, from Berlin to Paris, London to Kabul, have become ever shorter, but the list of problems has only grown. The country remains a potential breeding ground for terrorism as it was prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US. And little that the West has imported to Afghanistan since then has put down such deep roots that it would survive a pullout for long. Girls' schools, wells and newly paved roads are pleasant side effects of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. As a justification, however, they are not enough.

Clearer from a Distance

"Nothing is good in Afghanistan," said Margot Kässmann, then-head of the Protestant Church of Germany, a few months ago. The angry response from German political leaders was quick and biting -- and showed that she had touched a nerve. Her comments were criticized, with some justification, for having shown a lack of detailed knowledge of NATO's mission in Afghanistan. But sometimes things are clearer from a distance.

Afghanistan is a nightmare, a graveyard of empires. The British came first, followed by the Soviets; now NATO and the UN are losing their innocence on the battlefields of Afghanistan. In total, the US, its allies and private security firms have almost 200,000 soldiers stationed in the country, roughly equal to the number the Soviets stationed there in the 1980s. It wasn't enough then, and it won't be enough now. And increasing that number would be militarily difficult and politically impossible. The West has bitten off more than it can chew.

When sending troops abroad, governments take out a kind of loan from the populace -- a loan of trust. This is particularly true in Germany. Should payments not be made on that loan, the electorate eventually calls it in completely. And without the support of the populace, overseas missions become increasingly difficult. This point has been reached already in Berlin and in a number of NATO capitals.

Losing with Dignity

It is difficult to ignore the political parallels to the Vietnam War. The Western alliance has reached the point where calls for patience and for continued support have become increasingly shrill, even desperate. Politicians' words are sounding increasingly hollow. In a recent government statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel was so uninspired that she resorted to borrowing former Defense Minister Peter Struck's famous formulation that Germany's security is being "defended in the Hindu Kush."

Before the Afghanistan mission's aim becomes only that of saving face, we should withdraw. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demanded in 1971 that his country should lose the Asian war with dignity. To achieve that aim, the US stayed in Vietnam for two more years -- years which resulted in the deaths of additional hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

One can hear similar expressions of desperation these days. Only recently, German Development Minister Dirk Niebel said on television that Germany has to stay in Afghanistan. Berlin owes it to those who have lost their lives, he said.

One wonders how much longer we will have to listen to such justifications.

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