It is easy to see our Afghan effort drifting not just to a debacle but to a disaster. We had worked hard to get the Soviets out, and then had zero idea of what to do next. But this initial effort did build strong ties between the Pakistani army and radical Islamic fighters which have come back to haunt us. And it led to civil war, refugees, and Taliban repression. It wasn't our problem so we ignored it until the 9/11 attack. Then another intervention all but eliminated al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban and, once again, we had zero idea of what to do next. President Bush had famously derided nation building, even though that was exactly what Afghanistan needed and the United States has a long history of success at it - just ask Japan, Germany or South Korea. But instead of building, we focused primarily on military actions. This short-sighted effort led to a Taliban resurgence and had a disastrous impact on government - it fed corruption lavishly but failed to feed people - despite fourteen years of American "support," roughly one-third of the population is food-insecure - this in a country that had a reputation as a regional bread basket. And if we had put a tenth of the resources spent on military into development, it would be a bread basket again.
Now we have a fragmented and ineffective government; Afghans are staring into an abyss of continuing bloodshed, civil war, economic disintegration. And yet again we have no idea of what to do next, no concept of what we want and how to get there. We are working to build stability by building Afghan military capabilities even while we withdraw critical assistance of air support, intelligence, and logistics. But most of all we are failing again at real economic development. Although the Taliban have minimal popular support, it is hard to see what everyday Afghans could fight for - there is no coherent alternative to the Taliban. Thousands are already fleeing, carrying with them many of the skills the economy needs.
This is an abyss not only for Afghans, but also for the United States. A disintegration of Afghanistan into a failed state will destroy the credibility of the United States as a reliable partner for developing states under stress. Even as he began the war, President Bush had stressed, "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible - and no one can now doubt the word of America." But we are about to go back on that word, hoping that somehow we can withdraw and leave behind some kind of functioning state. But a collapse of Afghanistan will not simply result in some kind of black hole in South Asia, it will be festering sore, adding millions of refugees to the burgeoning tide that is already overwhelming West Europe. This tide is the outcome of a century and more of neglect of developing nations in Africa and the Middle East. It will not be resolved overnight.
The United States is, of course, also responsible. Many of the refugees are from Libya and Iraq. In both these countries we were the driving force behind the destruction of repressive, though functioning, regimes that we have been unable to replace with competent governments. Although we can disclaim to some extent the flood of refugees from Syria, our disjointed efforts there have certainly not helped the situation. And there will be no one else to blame for any new flood of refugees from Afghanistan. Even as many now flee, Pakistan is actually pushing thousands of Afghan refugees back into a country that is totally unprepared to accept them, just adding to the turmoil. In the face of a major flood of new Afghan refugees, the United States will carry a responsibility to accept many of them, but it is not easy to even see how.
But the biggest problem is not simply an increase in the overall number of refugees but the fact that the United States will have totally failed to provide the leadership necessary to address the current crisis. It is already well past the point where it could have been dealt with coherently; now it is creating internal pressures which will challenge West Europe for decades to come.
The only real solution is to eliminate the conditions creating refugees in the first place. The United States is actually involved in a minimal effort in this direction in Central America, which at the moment has the most direct impact on the nation. But this will be a minor distraction if several million Afghan refugees, created by our own ineffectiveness, add to the situation. Instead of leading an effort to address the problem, the United States will add to its status as a major contributor.
As numerous commentators have stressed, the United States is indeed the only nation in a position to provide the leadership necessary to address global challenges. The center of gravity for addressing the refugee challenge is now in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's critical need is what it has always been, real economic development. Initially in the quieter areas it can vividly demonstrate American commitment to a brighter future. And it can be a striking contrast to areas with strong Taliban influence. The United States can still show that it does indeed do national building - a critical element of the challenges facing the nation in the Twenty-First Century. Or it can simply sit back and watch as Afghanistan descends into chaos, and its leadership opportunity fades into irrelevance. With globalization, the United States cannot prosper in a world of turmoil. Failure should not be an option.