Is Afghanistan the Right War? Pillar Says No

March 1, 2010 Topics: CounterinsurgencyMilitary StrategySecurity Regions: Afghanistan Tags: Insurgency

Is Afghanistan the Right War? Pillar Says No

by Author(s): Paul R. Pillar

THE ATTEMPTED bombing in December of a Detroit-bound airliner, which received as much attention in the United States as any terrorist incident since 9/11, raises the question of why the biggest thing the White House currently is doing in the name of counterterrorism is a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The would-be bomber was a Nigerian, radicalized while a student in the United Kingdom and further influenced by an extremist imam in Yemen who had spent half his life in the United States. The plot had nothing to do with Afghanistan. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was outfitted with his explosive underwear by a group of Saudis and Yemenis, none of whom was taking orders from anyone hiding in the hinterland of South Asia, even if they figured it was advantageous to adopt the al-Qaeda brand name. The link was ideological, and the ideology will persist whether those in the borderlands of AfPak are dead or alive.

Eight years ago, the United States led a just intervention in the Afghan civil war as a direct response to 9/11. After ousting the Taliban from power and rousting its al-Qaeda friends from Afghanistan, the United States-disquieted by a sense of having abandoned the country after stoking the war against the Soviets-did not declare victory and return home. Now Americans have a president who, after admirably having opposed the misadventure in Iraq from the beginning, is demonstrating his, and the Democratic Party's, toughness and counterterrorist bona fides in the so-called "good war." This is the wrong decision.


IT WOULD be fruitless to search the contours of current international terrorism for a compelling explanation of why the United States is escalating a military campaign in Afghanistan. Clearly there is a disconnect between where war is being waged and where terrorism is rearing its ugly head. The appropriate response is not to run off, guns blazing, to find new battlefields, be they in Yemen or anywhere else. The U.S. military, pressing the limits of sustainability and winding up one war while slowly winding down another, does not have the resources to open a new front in every territory that may become associated with terrorism. There is no shortage of such places.

Regardless of the available resources, it is a mistake to think of counterterrorism primarily, as Americans have become wont to do, as the application of military force to particular pieces of real estate. This pattern of thinking is rooted in a history in which the vanquishing of threats to U.S. security has consisted chiefly of armed expeditions to conquer or liberate foreign territory. The pattern has been exacerbated by the unfortunate "war on terror" terminology, which confuses and conflates the seriousness of, the nature of and the means used to counter the threat.

The strength of a terrorist adversary, al-Qaeda or any other, does not correlate with control of a piece of territory in Afghanistan or elsewhere. If a terrorist group has a physical safe haven available, it will use it. But of all the assets that make a group a threat-including ideological appeal and a supply of already-radicalized recruits-occupation of acreage is one of the least important. Past terrorist attacks, including 9/11 (most of the preparations for which took place in scattered locations in the West), demonstrate this.


ALTHOUGH THE popular desire to strike forcefully at America's enemies seems to have placed military force front and center in the counterterrorist toolbox, the same basic principles apply to it as to any other tool. Each has its uses but also its limitations, and none can strike a knockout blow. And military force also has downsides: monetary and human costs; collateral damage; and the potential to be counterproductive. The principal barrier to the effective use of bombs and guns in a battle against extremism is the paucity of good military targets involving terrorist operations against the United States-all the more so given that most related activity takes place in apartments, schools or mosques in Western cities.

These limitations are particularly apparent in Afghanistan. Most obvious is that the archenemy, al-Qaeda, isn't even there-except, National Security Adviser James Jones tells us, for fewer than a hundred members. So we have adopted the Afghan Taliban as a surrogate enemy. This surrogacy might seem to make sense given that the Taliban has shared an extreme ideology and a past alliance with al-Qaeda. But the Taliban is not a transnational terrorist group. Its goals are not those of Osama bin Laden. It is one of the most insular bands ever to get international attention. It cares about the political and social order in its own country. It does not care about the United States except insofar as we get in the way of its aspirations for the domestic ordering of Afghanistan.

If the Taliban was to return to power, it would see little or no advantage in again harboring a significant presence of bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Its previous host-playing led directly after 9/11 to the biggest setback the Taliban ever suffered. Bin Laden and his partner Ayman al-Zawahiri also would see little to be gained in restoring the previous arrangement. They have successfully hidden in Pakistan for nearly a decade; a return to Afghanistan would only expose them, or their underlings, to uninhibited U.S. firepower, even if U.S. troops were not on the ground.

The counterproductive aspects of applying U.S. military power in Afghanistan also have become all too clear. The foreign military occupation has helped to unite, motivate and win support for the disparate elements we have come to label the Afghan Taliban. The occupation and the inevitable collateral damage and civilian casualties have drained much of what had been-remarkably so for a Muslim country-a reservoir of goodwill toward the United States. Now more Afghans have taken up arms against coalition forces. Many of those who have joined the fight have no sympathy for the Taliban's ideology and do not even warrant the label.


THE WEAKNESS of the rationale for pressing the fight in Afghanistan has led many supporters of that war to say that the real concern is next door in Pakistan. Visions of mad mullahs getting their hands on Pakistani nuclear weapons are tossed about, but exactly how events in Afghanistan would influence the future of Pakistan does not get explained. The connection seems to be based on simple spatial thinking about instability spreading across borders, rather like the Cold War imagery of red paint oozing over the globe. A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would not bring any significant new resources to bear on conflict in Pakistan, which has a population five times as large and an economy ten times as big as its South Asian neighbor. Nor would it offer Pakistani militants a safe haven any more attractive or useful than the one they already have in Pakistan's own Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Pakistanis themselves offer the most authoritative take on how, if at all, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan affect security challenges within their own country. The Pakistanis have expressed concern that to the degree those operations are successful, they will merely push militants across the Durand Line (just as bin Laden and his colleagues were pushed across eight years ago). The unpopularity among most Pakistanis of any U.S. military operations in the region also limits Islamabad's political ability to cooperate with the United States in pursuing Washington's goals, including counterterrorist objectives.

Then there is what Pakistani officials do not acknowledge: their continued dalliance with the Afghan Taliban, which they see not as a threat but instead as an asset and a form of insurance against the political uncertainty of Afghanistan. This is the ultimate irony of the U.S. war: the government we are supposedly trying to save from spreading instability is doing business with the enemy we are fighting.


BASED ON accepted counterinsurgency doctrine, there are ample reasons to be skeptical that the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan will succeed. One is the corruption and illegitimacy of the central government. Another is the possible insufficiency of counterinsurgent forces, given the size of the task at hand. Yet another is the lack of time, given the Obama administration's schedule (politically necessary to reassure Americans the war will not continue indefinitely), by which the U.S. presence will begin to ramp down barely a year after it ramps up.

Whether the counterinsurgency succeeds or fails, however, is not even the main issue in judging whether the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. The focus on counterinsurgency is a classic case of goal substitution-of dwelling on an intermediate objective while losing sight of why we are pursuing it in the first place. Even if General Stanley McChrystal and the brave and resourceful troops under his command work enough magic to stabilize most of the country and the Karzai government that is supposed to be running it, the large expenditure of blood and treasure will have bought Americans little or nothing in increased safety from terrorist attacks. A successful counterinsurgency would not eliminate the terrorist haven in Pakistan (or even preclude one in unsecured portions of Afghanistan). And it would not address the radicalizing influences and operational preparations in Yemen, Europe, the United States and elsewhere that have far more to do with how many Americans will fall victim to terrorism.