Paul Pillar

Back to Basics in Afghanistan

The editorial writers at the New York Times devote their entire space today to a review of the state of the war in Afghanistan.  The editorial reflects not only the state of the war but also the the state of public discourse about the war.  Most of the piece is an excellent inventory of the disappointments, setbacks, tactical failures, and political and strategic quandaries in Afghanistan--in short, the many respects in which the war is not going well and the many reasons for anguish and hand-wringing about it.  These range from the lack of favorable results from the Marja offensive, the lack of commitment and fortitude on the part of the Karzai government, the corruption, the woeful inability of the Afghan army and police to provide security (highlighted by an article elsewhere in today's Times), and Pakistan's continued collusion with the Afghan Taliban.  It is more than enough to lead one to wonder, "Why are we waging this war?"

The Times's editorialists limit their answer to this question to their first two sentences:

  We believe that the United States has a powerful national interest in Afghanistan, in depriving Al Qaeda of a safe haven on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This country would also do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it now simply abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban’s brutalities.

That's it--no more elaboration or explanation for why the United States is enduring the costs of the war and the problems that the rest of the editorial lays out so well.  Of course, the editorial writers should not be required to provide encyclopedic coverage of a topic each time they address it (any more than I would want to be held to such a standard in each post in this blog).  But the editorial is a microcosm of discussion in the United States about the Afghan War in that basic questions about why this very costly expedition is being conducted get quickly swept aside in a common-knowledge, taken-for-granted sort of way while we rush to address a different question--which is less basic and not a matter of a "powerful national interest"--of "How can we win this counterinsurgency?"

Denying Al Qaeda a safe haven is, of course, the most commonly stated rationale for continuing the war, especially in the statements of the Obama administration.  But the repeated voicing of this rationale has never come to terms with the facts that Al Qaeda is barely in Afghanistan, that whatever happens in Afghanistan will not prevent Al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan or elsewhere, that if Al Qaeda tried to reestablish anything like the presence it had in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 we would--unlike before 9/11--bomb the #&*% out of it even if we did not have boots on the ground, and that a physical safe haven is not one of the more important determinants of the threat that Al Qaeda poses to us anyway.

As for the strategic standing of the United States, what possible connection does this have with the Taliban's brutalities--any more than with the brutalities of countless other brutal groups and regimes around the globe?  Presumably the writers are implicitly referring to another take-it-for-granted argument, that whenever the United States backs down from an existing commitment its reputation for upholding its other commitments gets damaged.  This was the main argument that sustained the determination of officials in the Johnson administration to continue prosecuting the Vietnam War even after they had come to see the war as a losing effort.  The logic of the argument is no more valid now than it was then; other actors simply do not gauge the determination of the United States to uphold its vital interests according to whether or not the United States cuts its losses in less-than-vital enterprises.

Moral standing perhaps does come into play, in the sense that earlier use by the United States of Afghanistan as an arena for making life miserable for the Soviet Union by stoking and supplying mujahedin efforts there has had long-lasting, and probably mostly negative, effects on the lives of Afghans living today.  But surely the blood and treasure the United States already has expended since then in Afghanistan, including in ousting the Taliban from power in 2001, count for something.  Most important, the continued U.S. military presence has compounded Afghan misery in other ways, principally by motivating still more violence in the form of opposition to what is seen as a foreign military occupation.  And the brutalities are by no means all on one side of this nasty and messy civil war.

As we listen to General Petraeus this weekend and dwell on the question of how we can win this counterinsurgency, let us not brush aside the more basic questions of why we are waging this war at all.