The Risks of Withdrawl

The economic costs of the Afghan war are insupportable, and political support at home is dwindling. America must withdraw, but at what price?

Opinion | Joschka Fischer | September 2010

Entering a war is easy; getting out of it is the hard part. That axiom is particularly true for the United States today, as it muddles through three wars – two of which were forced upon it (Afghanistan and the "war on terror"), with the third (Iraq) started unnecessarily by a U.S. administration blinded by ideology and hubris.

The U.S. has no prospect of a military victory in Afghanistan or Iraq; these wars’ economic costs can hardly be borne anymore, and political support at home is dwindling. America must withdraw, but the price – for the U.S., its allies in the region, and for the West – remains an open question.

The last U.S. combat troops have pulled out of Iraq. Despite using all the means at its disposal, the world’s greatest military power managed only to create a precarious domestic stability. No one today is hanging "Mission accomplished!" banners. None of the urgent political problems caused by U.S. intervention – the distribution of power between Shia and Sunni, between Kurds and Arabs, and between Bagdad and the regions – was actually resolved.

Iraq remains a state without a common nation. Moreover, it threatens to turn into a battleground for its neighbors’ opposing interests. The struggle between the leading Sunni power, Saudi Arabia, and Shia Iran for Persian Gulf hegemony threatens to turn Iraq into a battlefield again, including another round of civil war. Neighboring Syria and Turkey would probably be dragged into such a conflict instantaneously. One can only hope that the vacuum created by America’s withdrawal doesn’t implode in violence.

The situation in Afghanistan is even more complicated. Afghanistan is the mirror image of Iraq: a nation without a state. Separatism was never a threat here, but ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979, the country has been a theater of war for global and regional conflicts.  What we see there isn’t just a civil war. Via their Afghan allies, Pakistan in particular, but also Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, and Central Asian countries, are embroiled in a fight for influence.

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, turned Afghanistan into the theater of a global war. But what will now follow? A relapse into regional war and Islamist terror? Or will developments take an unforeseeable turn?

The U.S. and NATO are caught in a quandary in Afghanistan. They can neither remain in the country indefinitely, nor can they just leave.  Indeed, it is forgotten all too often that the U.S. de facto withdrew from the country once before, following the Soviet retreat of February 1989. Twelve years later, after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the U.S. and its Western allies had to return to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which had turned Afghanistan into a breeding ground of Islamist terrorism.

The lessons of the 1990’s aren’t difficult to understand and are too important to ignore. Apparently, though, some Western officials are trying to do just that. The Europeans would prefer to withdraw sooner rather than later, and the U.S. will probably follow suit.

The irony, however, is that withdrawal might lead the West into a new, far more dangerous regional war as Iran proceeds toward its goal of developing nuclear weapons. If that happens, withdrawal plans will be returned to the shelf – probably for many years.


Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice-chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2010.

Other articles from this issue