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Last Friday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina) said in an interview on CNN's Parker Spitzer that an enduring military relationship and permanent U.S. installations in Afghanistan would benefit both countries. "Under the right circumstances, I think it would really secure the gains we made to have a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, two airbases that would be beneficial to the Afghan security forces."
The goal is securing national security interests, Graham was careful to explain, similar to U.S. troops in Japan, S. Korea and Germany. "Only if the Afghans want it as a way to make sure this country never goes back into the hands of the Taliban. I think that would be a good way to end the Afghan conflict."
Given the authority and expertise Graham has earned on the subject, what was equally surprising was the lack of interest from other Republicans, Democrats, or even the media. Perhaps the tax cut negotiations between the two parties are taking precedence, or perhaps Afghanistan is simply no longer a topic of interest except to those very few families who have someone fighting.
But the question remains: would permanent bases in Afghanistan be a good idea?
Regretfully no, and here's why:
There is no doubt that the majority of the Afghan people like us, like what we bring and like what we represent. Freedom from the Taliban. Freedom to send their children to the schools we build and help staff. Freedom to be a farmer or a bazaari. After 38 years of civil war and invasion, the Afghans crave stability and a future without gunfire.
Time and time again in villages and towns up and down the Helmand River Valley, I've seen how the Afghan people and Marines cooperate on security, economic and governance issues; the success is so overwhelming that areas like Nawa and Garmsir have been returned to Afghan Army control. That's success, and it breeds more success (check on Marjah in a few more months).
The stumbling blocks, however, are President Karzai and government corruption. In survey after survey, the Afghan people confirm their biggest enemy isn't the Taliban, but rather corruption. As The New York Times reported last week, Karzai has fostered a climate of corruption that enables government officials to seize land, shops, food and anything of interest — with the citizen having no legal recourse. The article also mentioned a high official being stopped in Dubai carrying $52 million in cash, and how Karzai's brother is the largest drug smuggler in the country. Additionally, the Afghan Police, operating from the corrupt Ministry of the Interior, are virtually out of control as they shake down the average citizen for miscellaneous bribes.
And that's why Sen. Graham's suggestion won't work. The role of a government is to protect its citizens and provide basic services — which is why the Taliban was initially welcomed after the 1970's civil war — and Karzai's does neither. For the United States or NATO to provide a permanent presence for training purposes (a good idea, in theory), I would imagine that Karzai would fail to realize we're giving him the gift of time to build a functioning government and would instead assume he's been given more time to steal.
Until the Afghan people are sufficiently sickened by Karzai's actions and replace him with another leader, it may be time for the United States to ignore him and work directly with the people. While undercutting Karzai would pay immediate dividends by stabilizing the situation on the ground, it does nothing to build the governmental capacity a viable country needs. In such an environment, permanent bases would only serve to prop up a failed government, which is hardly good use of American blood and treasure.
It's a shame because this is a war in which the locals appreciate the actions of our Marines and soldiers and desperately want us to succeed; how frustrating that their government does not share the same aspirations.
Note: In response to Sen. Graham's call for permanent bases in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan replied, "While we will have an enduring relationship with Afghanistan, there are currently no plans for permanent U.S. military bases there. It would be premature to discuss any U.S. role or presence beyond the end of 2014."
Embedded journalist, author, and father of a Marine
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