A healthy debate has been brewing between Prof. Walt and the ubiquitous Peter Bergen (the guy who’s always talking about how he interviewed Bin Laden in 1997 and, you know, understands just exactly what goes inside the mind of terrorists–that guy). Walt argues that the United States and NATO should leave Afghanistan because accomplishing the oft-cited goals of establishing a stable democracy in the country are neither achievable nor necessary. Bergen, however, thinks that a long term presence is necessary to prevent Al Qaeda from re-organizing in the country under another Taliban government. He argues that an unstable Afghanistan would provide a haven for Al Qaeda, much like it did before 2001.

Although Bergen is right that it is possible that Al Qaeda could, it is not likely. Firstly, there are plenty of other unstable states–Somalia, Yemen, and to some extent Pakistan–where Al Qaeda can find another home. Moreover, does Al Qaeda really need a home base anymore? With the explosion of look-alike and franchise Al Qaeda groups (such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda of the Maghreb), the group no longer relies on a centralized structure. Sure, the group could use Afghanistan as a training base. But attacking training bases and keeping the organization on its toes does not require foot soldiers. Coordinating cruise missile strikes with the Pakistanis and a hopefully friendly Afghan government could work effectively, if not more effectively.

Bergen further assumes that the US occupation can accomplish some semblance of stability and democratic government. That’s simply not possible–unless a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan is implemented along with a 20-30 year military commitment. Why? The current Afghan army, primarily controlled and staffed by Tajiks, cannot keep the peace in the raucous Pushtun half of the country. The Pushtuns, who are at least 42% of the populace, are disengaged from the political process in Kabul. Warlordism is flourishing and the Taliban, though despised, represent the lesser evil when compared to Tajiks and foreign troops. Even if the US could remain in Afghanistan for an extended period, nothing guarantees that this fiercely proud and xenophobic country will accept such an occupation.

The best option is leaving. It would shift the onus of nation-building to the Afghans themselves. The inevitable consequence would be a power vacuum, which might encourage the Pashtun tribes to begin engaging in the political process. Afghan culture has an establish custom of inter-tribal conflict resolution, developed over centuries of dealing with tribal competition (See: Pushtunwali). The exit strategy should revolve around beginning such a national reconciliation. I’ll follow this post with a more detailed explanation of what a reconciliation would ideally look like.