Paul Pillar

Plodding Ahead Despite Knowing Better

This morning's press coverage offers several reminders of how mistaken are some of the most commonly voiced propositions underlying the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan:

Although the military effort is supposed to be all about countering Al Qaeda, a front-page article in the Washington Post reviews how little Al Qaeda has to do with the war.  The group is barely mentioned in the tens of thousands of WikiLeaks documents, and the few mentions are either vague references to unspecified sympathies or "shorthand for an amorphous ideological enemy."

 Although Pakistan is supposed to be an important partner in combating Islamic extremism in South Asia, a front-page piece by Dexter Filkins in the New York Times cites Pakistani officials as admitting that they are much more interested in being a dominant influence in Afghanistan, even if that means continuing a manipulative relationship with the Afghan Taliban.  The officials say that the much-heralded-at-the-time capture in January of senior Taliban commander Abdul Ghani Barader was intended to shut down peace talks that Barader had been conducting with the Afghan government and that had shut out Pakistan.  Pakistan's continued support for militants committing violence in Afghanistan is the subject of a strongly-worded op-ed by Afghanistan's national security adviser.

Although the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is the vehicle for hopes to establish a stable and legitimate regime in Afghanistan, and although corruption is one of the biggest impediments to establishing such legitimacy, Karzai admitted in an interview on ABC's This Week that he had directly intervened to free a aide who had been arrested on corruption charges by U.S.-backed Afghan anti-corruption units.

Although the future U.S. military presence in Afghanistan supposedly will depend on decisions yet to be made about "conditions" there, the Pentagon is moving ahead with major military construction projects that make sense only with a long-term presence in Afghanistan.  Some of the biggest projects for expanding bases will not be complete until the latter half of 2011, past the July 2011 date when a withdrawal is supposed to begin.

None of this is really news (although the directness with which Pakistani officials spoke to Filkins about Pakistani motives that had been suspected all along is new).  These reports really are just reminders.  We get similar reminders almost every week.  So why do we continue to plod ahead with this counterinsurgency, when careful scrutiny of the propositions underlying it show that the expedition is not advancing U.S. interests?

Sheer momentum is a major reason.  We find it difficult to back away from an ongoing effort that is either losing or not worth the expenditure, without suffering the psychological and political pain of admitting that it does not make sense to push ahead.  The emotional baggage of something like 9/11 weighs very heavily, so heavily that it pushes aside less emotional and more cognitive calculations about what is in the national interest.  With regard to the current war there are also more specific explanations, such as President Obama's political predicament in contrasting the good Afghan war with the bad Iraqi one, and a widespread faith in military savior David Petraeus to duplicate what success he had in Iraq.

The overall pattern also is not new.  We have seen it with previous U.S. wars.  Tragic momentum was much of what kept the United States pushing ahead in Vietnam even after it was clear that the war was not in U.S. interests.  We also saw some of this with George Bush's Iraq War before that war even began, while the war was still being sold.  Go back and look carefully at what was said during that sales campaign, particularly with regard to the manufactured issue of a supposed alliance between Iraq and Al Qaeda; you did not need to be an intelligence officer or a terrorism expert to realize that there was no case.  But emotion, stirred of course by 9/11 and skillfully restirred by the proponents of the war, prevailed over careful scrutiny of interests and evidence.

Nothing like the deception and misconception that preceded the Iraq War is taking place with the current war in Afghanistan.  But some of the same unwillingness to confront what should be obvious, and what we see reminders of in the news, continues.