Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is U.S. national security really at stake in Afghanistan? If not, we should get out

I was more-or-less inclined to give Pres. Obama the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while, when he announced the so-called Afghan surge in December of last year. He argued that the mission was vital to U.S. national security and that the commitment of 30,000 additional soldiers was designed to stop the Taliban's momentum and give the Afghan security forces the necessary time to increase their capacity.

In hindsight, perhaps I did not think hard enough about a couple of basic issues: (1) how closely is stopping the Taliban's momentum etc. linked, in a practical sense, to the goal of disrupting and defeating al-Qaeda?; and (2) if the answer to (1) is "not very closely," then why is the U.S. committing so many resources to fighting the Taliban in the first place? Put more simply: would it make it any real difference to U.S. national security if the Taliban re-took the essential levers of power (such as they are) in the country and re-established themselves as the government in Kabul? I am more and more inclined to think the answer is no it wouldn't, in which case it becomes more and more difficult to justify the current U.S./ISAF policy.

In a recent post on his blog, Stephen Walt writes:

As our numbers fall [i.e., when U.S. troops start to be drawn down, starting presumably some time in 2011], the Taliban will regroup, Pakistan will help rearm them covertly, and the struggle for power in Afghanistan will resume. Afghanistan's fate will once again be primarily in the hands of the Afghan people and the nearby neighbors who meddle there for their own reasons. I don't know who will win, but it actually won't matter very much for U.S. national security interests. [emphasis added]

If who wins doesn't matter very much for U.S. national security interests, then I, for one, will find it increasingly hard to watch on the NewsHour those photos and names of U.S. military personnel who have been killed. I'm willing to stipulate that the Taliban leadership is a nasty and repressive lot and that a victory for them would be bad (to put it mildly) for Afghan democrats (small "d") and for women, among others. But the sacrifice of American lives at the scale on which it is occurring can only be justified if American vital national security interests are at stake. If, as Walt suggests, the U.S. is eventually going to concoct a fig-leaf peace settlement and then persuade ourselves that we won (if, indeed, this is the best possible outcome given current conditions), it would probably be better to get out right now.

Historical analogies are easy to misuse, and I have been wary of analogies between Afghanistan and Vietnam. (After all, the misuse of historical analogies contributed to the U.S. getting into Vietnam in the first place.) However, it's worth recalling that whatever one thought of the 1973 Vietnam peace agreement, it was never in the cards that, once U.S. forces had left Vietnam, they would be re-introduced to prevent the 'fall' of Saigon. The Kissinger-Nixon strategy of pursuing "peace with honor" -- hugely costly in terms of Vietnamese and American lives, and costly too for the Cambodians and Laotians -- appears pointless (indeed, flatly immoral) in retrospect. Walt is worried that we have forgotten this piece of history (among others). I continue to be wary of historical analogies when they are mobilized for use in policy debates, but one can be wary of analogies and at the same time acknowledge that there is some wisdom in Santayana's dictum that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.


Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed this - thanks. But can you please unpack the following sentence for me: "The end of colonialism, an epochal change in world politics, represented an unusual case of a modern international institution becoming obsolete "? Are you saying that the UN became obsolete with formal decolonization? If so, Could you please elaborate because I don't quite follow the argument.
Thanks again. I have a feeling I will come back to this post a few times over the next few days.

LFC said...

Hi N,
Since your comment refers not to this Afghanistan post but to the 'rhetorics of empire' post [I understand, it's early in the a.m. :-)], I've put my response under that post.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are correct. Thanks!

hank_F_M said...


In a practical sense I think yes. Th main goal of course is the AQ. But to hunt AQ we need bases to operate from. The Taliban will slowly strangle them if we are not attacking the Taliban. And from that most of the rest of the military policy

In a strategic sense I think no. May a bomb soon fall on Osama bin Laden and from that unravel the mess.

That’s analysis. I don’t like it and if we had more discretion available I like your question and answer much better

Ever since the invasion of Afghanistan the fictional Colour Sergeant’s mostly good advice of a to the Young British Soldier keeps coming back.

I do not think we are this bad off, but I fear for our soldiers if we are wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
[it’s the last stanza]. It could be the only way out is forward.

LFC said...

"to hunt AQ we need bases to operate from"

My question would be do those bases need to be in Afghanistan (we now see AQ 'franchises' elsewhere, of course, e.g., AQ in the Arabian Peninsula etc.). On the other hand, I don't like the drone strategy (too many civilian deaths for every 'bad guy' killed). Obviously I don't have the solution.