Otto von Bismarck said, “The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” America should apply the same reasoning to Afghanistan.
This month we learned the U.S. Marines are back in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province and the center of opium poppy production, and their mission may expand. President Trump will soon decide if he should send 8,400 more troops there for the latest chapter in America’s longest war. Should he?
I think not. We gave Afghanistan out best effort: over 2,200 dead soldiers, over 20,000 wounded, and over $700 billion for everything from ammunition to medical care for veterans. We need to face the fact that it’s an endemically violent place and may never change and another “whole of government” effort may not make any difference.
And don’t take my word for it: the Talban has rejected peace talks with the Afghan government as surrendering to the enemy and against Islam.
The Afghans have seen off every visitor and invader, from Alexander the Great to the U.S. Central Command, so why spend another dollar there? For example, the regional transport network has avoided Afghanistan and the enthusiasts for a New Silk Road or One Belt, One Road haven’t absorbed that the world is avoiding Afghanistan not out of stupidity but out of hard-won experience.
Yes, there is wealth to be had: Russian, British, and American geologists have found that Afghanistan has enormous untapped mineral resources, valued at $1 to $3 trillion. The minerals are in the ground, sure, but there’s no way to get them out so they’re effectively worth nothing. And there’s no way to get them out because the country is violent and corrupt which scares away prudent investors.
In 2008, the Chinese won the rights to the Aynak copper mine for $3 billion and an alleged $30 million bribe to the minister of mines. In 2017, no copper has yet been mined and the Chinese executive heading the project has been expelled from the Communist party for corruption. The only good news, if you can call it that, has been the recent Taliban green light for the restart of the project.
Wise Western investors should temporarily cede the field to the Chinese, Pakistanis, and Iranians — our enemies and frenemies — and let them try to make something of it. Afghanistan will still want friends in the West and we should exercise some of that recently derided “strategic patience” until the time is right and the Chinese have worn out their welcome when the Afghans realize they won’t create any jobs. Dealing with Afghanistan should be like buying a used car — let someone else take the loss and get it later at a savings. In this case, the savings of American lives and the bandwidth our leaders can devote to tractable issues.
What should the U.S. do?
- Ensure the Afghans who helped our military and diplomatic effort as translators or other helpers get visas to the U.S. Yes, that will cause a brain drain, but as it stands now, they’re not being given the chance — by their own government or the Taliban — to do what they’re capable of, so their talent is being wasted. It won’t be wasted in the U.S.
- Enact a soft cordon to protect the neighboring Central Asian states. They have less transparency than we like but have functioning governments and moderate, secular societies. The U.S. should increase military-to-military and cop-to-cop relationships with Central Asia, both for security sector reform and border security to stanch the flow of drugs. If the effort works, and the flow is diverted via Pakistan and Iran, it will increase addiction and public corruption and give the U.S. another lever to use when dealing with Tehran and Islamabad. Central Asia has a lot of human potential, mineral and energy resources, and is an East-West transport route. The transporters will lose a north-south route to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea via Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the Central Asian states can continue to trade to the Persian Gulf via Iran.
- Focus our effort on the narcotics trade and its twin, money laundering. Afghanistan has one successful export: poppy, which accounts for 90 percent of worldwide production of heroin, and the area under cultivation has increased in fits and starts since 2002. Destinations for drug proceeds and stolen government funds, like the United Arab Emirates, are more interested in being word-class business centers than hosting crash pads for narcos, so we can count on their continued cooperation and assistance. U.S. assistance to Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics effort, which will be centered in Helmand Province — the destination for all those Marines — can be refashioned to technical intelligence support to supplement HUMINT networks.
We did our best in Afghanistan, but it’s time to move on.