I was pleased to hear that President Obama is considering a more rapid and more complete drawdown of American military forces in Afghanistan. I voted for that war, while voting against the war in Iraq, because the Afghan government was sheltering a mass murderer — Osama bin Laden, who killed hundreds of innocent Africans in 1998, and thousands more in the United States in 2001.
During his first nine months in office, President George W. Bush was not seeking to overthrow the Taliban regime. As abhorrent as that government was, it posed no threat to the United States. And President Bush’s first response to 9/11 was to insist that the Afghan government give us custody of bin Laden. Only after the Afghans refused to do that did we invade.
Neither was the war based on the theory that it was our responsibility to end Afghan internal fighting, bring democracy to that country, end corruption or achieve any of the other values that are desirable but not essential to U.S. interests, nor within our nation’s capacity to achieve.
Continued American military presence in Afghanistan illustrates one of the fundamental errors we have made in our policy in the post-Cold War period.
We have the finest military in the world, and while I believe we can substantially reduce defense spending, I advocate such reductions confident in the belief that even at 80 percent of current levels, the American military will be fully capable of meeting any of our legitimate security needs.
The U.S. military can do extremely well what a military should: keep bad things from happening. But the best military in the world is not capable of making good things happen in a society that lacks social cohesion and a commitment to basic human values.
If I thought our military could make Afghanistan a better place on all these counts, I would be morally conflicted. But given the futility of the effort to accomplish this in Afghanistan, and our need to reduce our deficit over time, the decision to withdraw is an easy one.
It is now clear that President Hamid Karzai’s hope is that America will stick around as an adjunct to his power, without his commitment to do any of the things that we think should be done in the societal realm.
Afghanistan is not threatened by any outside military power. Religious differences between the Iranian Shia regime and the Sunni Taliban mean that the Iranians are generally supportive of Karzai. The bags of money this flawed president has been receiving on a monthly basis came for a time both from the CIA and from Iran.
The one remaining argument for our staying in Afghanistan is to keep it from being once again a haven for terrorists. But we have made substantial gains in diminishing the Taliban’s Afghan operations. And while the Taliban embrace very few of the values that I think appropriate to a government, they are distinct from al-Qaida. We also retain the right to use lethal drones — although with much more care than we originally did — to combat those terrorists who do plan harm against us.
Finally there are a number of countries in the world from which terrorists can operate. Even if we succeeded in completely purging Afghanistan. There is Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, among many others. We cannot shut down every haven. That is why we have greatly expanded our domestic defenses against terror.
Afghanistan will be badly run, with or without a significant American military presence. The only impact of our being there is to drain $10 billion a year or more from our efforts to reduce our deficit in a socially responsible way.
President Karzai’s recent obstruction of efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban is the latest evidence that his interest in his political survival and the U.S. commitment to national security are hardly identical, and increasingly not even congruent.
President Obama will be besieged by those who tell him that America has a responsibility to continue to drain on our limited fiscal resources to help transform Afghan society. We don’t. There is neither a national security interest, nor an achievable moral goal in a continued American military presence there.
Withdrawal from that country as quickly as possible-with the safety of the withdrawing troops being paramount — is the only sensible course for America to follow.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts. You can follow him on Twitter: