Think Again: Afghanistan
Like many other people who are opposed to the current waqr in Afghanistan, I am constantly amazed at some of the arguments used to justify our continued futility there. To try to reconcile these, I have decided to borrow the “Think Again” format from Foreign Policy to answer a few of the arguments supporters make. This material, I should add, was previewed during a talk I gave last week to the “Hilton Head for Peace” group on Hilton Head Island, SC.
1. We had to go into Afghanistan.
Well, yes, but! It is true that it was entirely justifiable in October 2001 to attack and eradicate Al Qaeda, a task at which we failed because of the inadequate commitment of resources that were withheld to help prepare for tthe idiotic invasion of Iraq. Since the Taliban was shielding Al Qaeda, one can even justify helping tip the ongoing civil war with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban to make our assault on Al Qaeda easier. Once that mission was accomplished/failed, however, the rationale for sticking around–especially for nine years and counting–to prop up the Karzai government is not only less compelling, but basically indefensible.
2. A favorable outcome is vital to American interests in Afghanistan and the region.
Well, that depends on which interests one is discussing, and since these possible interests tend to contradict one another, some distinction is necessary. If we are talking about interests in Afghanistan itself beyond keeping it from being an Al Qaeda refuge (which, given the worldwide dispersal of Al Qaeda, is a questionable goal), what interests? We also have interests in Pakistan (the world’s sixth most populous country–with nuclear weapons), and it isn’t clear how the war is helping there. And then there is Iran, which can only benefit from America being tied down in an increasingly unpopular war in the region.
A corollary assertion here is that the failure to remain in the country and “win” (see number four) is that we make the sacrifices of those who have died in Afghanistan meaningless if we do not stay. Does anyone but me remember Richard Rovere’s Vietnam book, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” named for an old Delta work song (“Waist deep in the big muddy, and the damned fool said to go on…”)? How the meaningless sacrifice of more American lives and treasure for no discernible benefits honors those who have already been sacrificed constitutes an argument that absolutely eludes me.
3. If we don’t stop the terrorists there, we will have to stop them here.
Absolute drivel and nonsense. What is the evidence to support this contention? The simple fact is there isn’t any and that this is just part of the right-wing scare tactic to get us to support this particular paranoid belief. Rather, one can make a much stronger case that our continued actions in Afghanistan makes attacks on the U.S. more, rather than les, likely, because they are motivating Afghans (who, up to now, have noticeably absent from terrorist ranks) to seek revenge against us for the damage and suffering we are (admittedly inadvertently) wreaking on Afghan civilians. Since they cannot seek direct retribution there, the argument increasingly heard is they feel we should be forced to suffer the same wrongs. This is really an argument for leaving, not staying.
4. If we persevere, we can win.
No we can’t. First, what do proponents mean by “win”? They generally won’t say, wither because they have no idea what winning there means (John McCain), or they realize that any objective definition is unobtainable. As I have said before in this space, outsiders do not win civil wars, which is what the war in Afghanistan is about. Last week’s Nation magazine listed four conditions that made the case in Afghanistan why we can’t prevail: 1) there are complex regional and ethnic differences we can’t overcome; 2) there is a long tradition of successful resistance to occupation there; 3) there is a tradition of decentralized tribal government that we can’t supplant; and 4) the country is susceptible to outside interference (by Iran, Pakistan, and India). The best we can hope for is a return to number 3), which is hardly what most of us would consider victory.
5. It is worth the cost.
You have to be kidding. The cost is astronomical (so much so that it is generally obfuscated), but can someone measure the benefits? I have never seen a serious accounting of the benefits of this war. Is it the mineral riches recently discovered under Afghanistan? If it is in reducing terrorism, the numbers are particularly hard to compute and are almost certainly negative. Countering terrorism is never cost-effective at the margins (the costs of countering terrorist initiatives can almost always be negated by the terrorists at substantially lower costs). This does not even address the very real questions of whether we can afford this war regardless of the benefits, given the state of the U.S. economy. Government economies that do not require participation by the defense/military establishment are pure sophistry.
6. If we leave the results will be disastrous.
Poppycock. I heard David Gergen, the quintessential pundit with no obvious foreign policy credentials, make this argument recently. The heart of it, familiarly enough, is that if we were to leave precipitously, it woud indelibly harm American prestige and the willingness of others to trust us in the future, and that Afghanistan would go to hell in a haybasket if we leave. This argument seems to ignore the counterargument that our totally feckless, quixotic current efforts are at least as damaging as admitting we can’t win and cutting our losses (as the Russians and British have been telling us for years), and it is not at all clear that the Taliban are not going to “take over” a loosely governed Afghanistan in the long run, regardless of what we do.
One could go on, but I will close with a thought borrowed from Mark Twain/Groucho Marx, both of whom have had attributed to them the quote, “I would’t belong to any organization that would have me as a member.” In the current international environment, a useful paraphrase for the U.S. government might be, “I wouldn’t intervene in any country that would invite me.”