President Barack Obama is about to join Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Lord Auckland and Leonid Brezhnev in a very exclusive club that only adds a new member every few decades: world leaders who have tried and failed to successfully invade and reshape Afghanistan, referred to in the history books as “the graveyard of empires.”
The Obama Administration announced Tuesday that it is planning a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, to be completed by the end of 2014, according to the Washington Post. The plans were made necessary by the failure thus far of negotiations between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the Bilateral Security Agreement, the last hope for securing U.S. presence in the country past the end of this year.
Negotiations began to unravel last November. Though the Loya Jirga, a gathering of 2,500 Afghan elders, endorsed the signing of the BSA, Karzai balked when a U.S. drone killed several civilians last November. Karzai has since expressed a laundry list of preconditions for his signature, ranging from the end of drone strikes to a mandate for direct peace talks with the Taliban.
Whatever happens in the negotiations, Karzai’s objections speak to deeper problems in the American war machine. These problems make it not only impossible to negotiate with Afghanistan, but also directly hamper allied cooperation in the future. Rather than the short-term tunnel vision that has dominated the U.S. approach to Afghanistan and the War on Terror, a more pragmatic approach consistent with international norms is our only hope for the future of engagement with the international order.
The U.S. should commit to full resolution of the indefinite detention of detainees both at Guantanamo Bay and abroad. This is something that President Obama promised during his candidacy and has since failed to do. One of the sticking points over signature of the BSA is the continued detention of Afghan citizens at Guantanamo. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act gives the government the power to begin transfers abroad, but still bans any funds for transfer to the United States for trial or imprisonment, leaving many in Guantanamo for the foreseeable future.
Guantanamo Bay and detention abroad in general have come to be seen by allies as the most egregious characteristic of post-9/11 policy. The Germans may have raised temporary hell over the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, but you can bet her data plan that they took much more seriously the alleged torture of Turk Murat Kurnaz, a German national.
Even if the war in Afghanistan is winding down, can the U.S. really afford to leave the precedent set by the last 13 years of detention on the books? The next time the U.S. war machine finds itself abroad, it would do well to have a precedent against the kind of indefinite detention that still exists today.
Furthermore, even if negotiations with Karzai fail, the U.S. will get another shot when the country’s next leader takes power after the April elections. But it is naïve and shortsighted to think that these issues are specific to Afghanistan alone. U.S. allies have turned a blind eye to the aforementioned practices for long enough, and the trend is beginning to grow unsustainable.
The challenges of the 21st century — be they climate change, global proliferation of nuclear weapons or collapsing regimes and rogue states — will require close collaboration with our allies abroad. That cooperation will be less effective if our preferred means of overcoming these problems are hampered by our inconsistent and hypocritical military industrial complex.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring in political science and economics. His column, “State of the Union,” runs Thursdays.