My esteem for George Will knows no bounds. But I don’t find his column persuasive. He’s advocating a version of the Murtha strategy for Afghanistan — counter-terrorist strikes from a distance. There are various problems with this. One is that al-Qaeda is not in Afghanistan, so who would be the targets? Are we going to wait for al-Qaeda to re-establish bases, and then hit them? Does that make any sense? Or are we going to target the Taliban? And if so, why would we pull out, which would very likely lead to the collapse of the Afghan government and army and create the conditions for a Taliban take-over?
This counter-terrorism from afar is very dicey business. What would our sources of intelligence be if we don’t have a substantial presence on the ground? Remember: The further away you are, the better your intelligence has to be because you have a longer lead time until you can strike. This is why we kept hitting empty terrorist training camps with cruise missiles in the 1990s.
Will says “Pakistan actually matters.” That’s a very important reason to care about Afghanistan too. For the first time, Pakistan has been undertaking serious counter-insurgency operations in the border areas. And we have been supporting them with counter-insurgency operations in adjacent areas in Afghanistan. Just as Pakistan begins to get serious are we going to pull the rug out from under them? The Durand Line obviously works both ways. Just as Pakistani under-performance over the years has created a haven for fighters to infiltrate into Afghanistan, our under-performance would create a haven in Afghanistan for fighters to infiltrate Pakistan. And there’s no such thing as simply guarding the border since there’s no border to speak of. If you want to control the border, you have to control the population near it, which means you can’t just rely on special-operations forces and have to undertake counter-insurgency operations that require boots on the ground and, ultimately, a functioning indigenous army and government.
In other words, if you think Afghanistan matters at all, something on the order of what we are attempting there now is necessary. If you think Afghanistan doesn’t matter and should be allowed to fall to hell, that’s another thing. But the problem is that it abuts another country that inarguably matters and whose border regions are a haven to al-Qaeda. That’s why there’s no easy escape, even with “drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units.”