Know When to Walk Away

"You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, and know when to run."
– Kenny Rogers

President Barack Obama is a smart man. He is cool and keeps his head when all around him are losing theirs, but he needs to know when to fold ’em and when to run. We are not in a single no-win situation; we are in two. We cannot win in Afghanistan, and we cannot win in Iraq.

When Obama was campaigning, he promised that he would get our troops out of Iraq within 16 months. He is now planning on getting our combat troops out in 18 months, but how does he define combat troops? He plans to leave troops there for the purpose of “training, equipping, and advising Iraqi security forces as long as they remain nonsectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq.” Conducting counterterrorism missions sounds like combat operations to me. The president is talking about leaving 35,000 to 50,000 soldiers there, a good-sized army.

The Iraqi and U.S. governments agreed on a timetable for the U.S. to leave Iraq. During the campaign, Obama advocated an even faster pullback from that tortured nation. At a minimum, the administration should accept the Iraqi request to leave. It may result in more violence or even a civil war, but that is the problem of the Iraqis: they want us out, so we should get out.

The more troubling issue is Afghanistan. Candidate Obama was correct in pointing out that after sending the military into that country, Washington became distracted by the drive to force regime-change in Iraq. We took our eyes off the target of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. At one point our troops even had him cornered, but they turned over the task of capturing him to the local warlords. The locals, of course, saw no reason to pursue the objective with any vigor. Why should they? Al-Qaeda had not attacked them. That does not, however, justify a troop surge in Afghanistan. Can we win in that mountainous country? In recorded history, no one ever has succeeded. In the 19th century, the British were humbled: almost all of their troops were killed. The Soviet failure in the 1980s contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. Even Alexander the Great, over 2,000 years ago, could not tame that wild land.

One of my colleagues, a military man, claimed we could win in Afghanistan, in a couple of hundred years, give or take another hundred. The mountainous country is perfect for guerrilla warfare. During the day, the warriors can blend in with the local civilians. When they want to kill our soldiers, they can hide in caves or lie in waiting along paths unsuitable for mechanized equipment. We found it difficult to tame the insurgents in Iraq, which has roads, buildings, and the trappings of a civilized and urbanized country. In Afghanistan, there are few roads, and few of those are paved. Around every curve, hill, or cliff lies an opportunity to shoot at or blow up our troops.

Moreover, it is not really a country. It has never had a central government that could dictate policy to all regions. It is made up of tribes and sub-tribes and run by warlords, who find fighting a normal way of life. The way to riches in Afghanistan is to steal from your neighbor or, more recently, to grow poppies for heroin. In reality, the cultivation of the poppies is not where the money is; it is in collecting the opium and selling it to dealers in the rest of the world. Ironically, the Taliban had largely wiped out poppy growing in that country, drugs being against Islamic law, before we invaded and forced them out.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai exhibits a wonderful presence to the West. He is very charismatic. He is surrounded, however, by those who live well off corruption. Even if the president is not corrupt, his brother appears to be deeply involved in the opium trade. Local officials, judges, and policemen are paid very poorly if at all and so resort to taking bribes to support their families. This country is steeped in corruption, violence, and poverty. There is little that the United States can do about that.

The administration asserts that, over time, an efficient Afghan army can be created to take on the Taliban. Given that the Taliban are Pashtun, the major tribe in Afghanistan, as are many of the recruits in the official army, it will be difficult or impossible to get them to take on their neighbors. Moreover, the soldiers in the army are paid little and will desert easily.

Instead of sending more troops to Afghanistan, the new administration should admit that we can do nothing except allow our soldiers to be killed. It is too late to capture bin Laden. It is time to fold and walk away. The longer we stay, the more occupying soldiers will die. In addition, we will kill dozens of Afghans, many women and children, for every one of our soldiers lost for this folly. This truly is a lose-lose war.

Author: Thomas Gale Moore

Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at the Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.