By Byron Hartman Staff Editor November 8, 2009

“He who forms a low friendship lights a fire on his own forehead.”
-Afghan Proverb

“He who forms a low friendship lights a fire on his own forehead.”
-Afghan Proverb

Eight years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the war in Afghanistan is finally at the center of policy debates. Most of this attention is focused on whether the president should approve the additional combat troops requested by General Stanley McChrystal. The proverb above artfully captures an underappreciated but critical aspect of this discussion – the meaning of American friendship and the quality of U.S. commitments. Victory in Afghanistan requires providing the appropriate number of troops General McChrystal requested. Should the United States fail to deploy adequate forces the likely loss will be a shameful failure to make good on sacred American commitments.

There are many reasons the United States should not give up on Afghanistan. These range from geostrategic interests related to Pakistan, India, and Iran to tactical goals aimed at eliminating Al Qaeda. All of these reasons are accurate and important.

Yet, there is an even more important truth that few in the foreign policy establishment are vocally articulating: the United States has made promises. It sounds simplistic, juvenile even. But to the Afghan people, abandoned by the U.S. government following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1988, nothing is more central. To the Afghans, this is about faith. It is about rebuilding the trust that was broken in the cold calculations of a post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’. It is about making good on the promises America made to the Afghan people, those who defeated a ruthless Communist enemy over twenty years ago and were left to pick up the shattered pieces of a nation without U.S. assistance.

Over one million Afghan civilians died during the Soviet-Afghan war. The 8-year old Afghan child that was left orphaned in Pakistani refugee camps in 1988 turned into the 29-year old Afghan Taliban commander that NATO forces are fighting now, violently resentful of the way the American government abandoned his country. If we fail in Afghanistan now, the Afghan children of today, abandoned to a neo-Taliban movement with global Al Qaeda ties, will almost certainly grow into the next Khalid Sheikh Mohammads and Imad Mugniyehs of tomorrow, engineering the murder of American citizens at home and abroad.

The impact of deserting the Afghans ranges far beyond the Hindu Kush and Helmand Province though; if the United States abandons Afghanistan again, it will never recover its standing in Central Asia. No country in the region will be willing to place their trust in America. America’s NATO allies, whom it asked, cajoled and threatened into standing firm in Afghanistan will feel justifiably forsaken and misled. Many of these allies fought costly domestic political battles and made economic sacrifices to contribute additional forces. Breaking this trust with the NATO alliance would be an unprecedented blunder that will undermine the very integrity of the United States’ most important alliance.

Some argue that our interests can be best served by a limited counter-terrorism campaign targeting Al Qaeda leaders in the Pakistani border region. Al Qaeda is not the cause of instability in Afghanistan, but rather a symptom of the disease. The disease is the central government’s lack of institutional capacity to provide security and services. The withdrawal of U.S. military support may not lead to the immediate collapse of the Afghan central government, but it will result in the immediate loss of large areas to tribal, narcotic and militant interests. Al Qaeda will exploit these autonomous areas to establish new bases and training camps from which to attack America and her allies around the world.

What is most dangerous, though, is that the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the inevitable collapse of Afghanistan will provide Al Qaeda with space to operate. Their capacity to strike could return to the same levels they enjoyed prior to the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would be portrayed not as a Taliban victory, but as an Al Qaeda one. Militant factions in the Muslim world deserted Al Qaeda in the aftermath of their failed campaign in Iraq, but new militant foot soldiers would flock to the banner of an Al Qaeda victory, setting off a period of global instability not seen in modern history.
Nothing will encourage and embolden Al Qaeda so much as victory in Afghanistan.

America’s last serving Nobel laureate President, Woodrow Wilson, offers sage wisdom to our newest: “No man can sit down and withhold his hands from the warfare against wrong and get peace from his acquiescence.” Afghan proverbs and great American presidents both warn against making bad foreign policy for domestic political expediency; hopefully the current president is wise enough to heed them.

Disclaimer: This photo is being used under licensing by creative commons. The original source can be found here: http://www.army.mil/-images/2009/05/18/38368/army.mil-38368-2009-05-18-070553.jpg. If you have any problems with the use of this photo, please contact the editor at iar@gwu.edu.