Arguing Against Afghanistan

Should theUnited States be engaged in the COIN “long slog” in Afghanistan to which it is apparently committed? Part of the answer, discussed earlier in this space, is military, largely couched in terms of the application of the Petreaus COIN strategy to that country, and is largely negative: it suggests the very real prospect that the United States will not prevail in this military struggle. There is, however, a prior question about American involvement, and it is political: SHOULD the United States be engaged in Afghanistan. Once again, I think the answer is no!

Basing my argument on the soon-to-be published (in September) new edition of Snow and Drew’s From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond, I would suggest three factors which suggest the United States should not be entangled in the war in Afghanistan.

The first reason involves the political objective of the war. As argued by Denny Drew and I in From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond, the political objective is the statement of the reason for going to war and serves two purposes: explaining the reason for the effort and providing guidance for those who must conduct it. To serve these purposes, the objective needs to be simple and straightforward (thus understandable), noble (for Americans), important to achieve, and attainable. The war in Afghanistan flunks this test. It is not easy to state why we are there unless one terribly distorts the actual reasons (something like “promoting an anti-Taliban government that will resist the return of Al Qaeda”), hardly morally lofty given the corruption of the government we support, arguably not very important to Americans, and certainly not definitively attainable. Defeating Hitler in World War II was a great political objective; whatever we are trying to do in Afghanistan is not.

Second, even the government (principally military leaders) argue that this is indeed a “long slog,” which means an extended commitment that could require a decade or more to complete. In November, Afghanistan will pass Vietnam as the longest war in US history (in terms of length of US combat participation), and projecting it out for another decade would make it overwhelmingly the country’s longest military commitment. It is essentially a given that political democracies do not like long wars and will not tolerate them unless there is a compelling reason for continuing them–something like a very good political objective that is missing in Afghanistan. Is there anyone out there who seriously believes the American people will tolerate another five or ten years of American sacrifice in Afghanistan? I certainly do not.

Third, there is the conjunction of the first two arguments with a third, which is the level of US interests engaged in Afghanistan. This is familiar ground. American initial motivation for entering Afghanistan–isolating and destroying Al Qaeda–clearly was worth our effort, and it is the rationale that continues to sustain our efforts. The problem, as noted in earlier postings, is that the current effort is only indirectly about that interest. Al Qaeda, after all, is located in Pakistan, where we are not fighting, not in Afghanistan where we are. Effectively, our effort is the defeat of the Taliban insurgency and assist in achieving the victory of the Karzai government. Does the United States really have any “dog in that hunt”? The answer is indirect: the defeat of the insurgency contributes to keeping Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan.Is that reason enough for a 15- to 20-year military commitment to a country in which we have no other earthly interests? Hardly.

The Obama administration has hitched its star to prevailing in Afghanistan, and it has anointed this generation’s apparent successor to William Westmoreland, Stabley McChrystal, to implement that policy choice. Like Westmoreland before him, McChrystal’s major idea is more troops poured into a war that he shows little evidence of understanding and in support of unsustainable political objectives. This is not a recipe for success.

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