Debating the Afghanistan war

Here’s a summary of good arguments for and against the US war in Afghanistan, particularly as it was being debated back in late 2009 and considered by the President, before he decided to commit over 30,000 more troops to the war.

Its adapted from Lecture notes, designed to show what  decent strategic arguments might look like from either side of the fence.

My biases inevitably will come through, but if I can’t insidiously insert those into a blog post, where’s the fun?

The objective: as laid down by President Obama, it  is clear. ‘To disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and prevent it being able to return and freely operate in those lands.’ But people disagree about what that means, and exactly how important it is.

The choice: All caveats and qualifications noted, the US basically had to choose between three paths. Continuing with the status quo. Escalation, seeking to resolve the conflict and meet political objectives by increasing the effort. And Extrication, drawing down the war while finding other ways to manage and contain the problem.

It was widely agreed that the status quo was not delivering. America found itself in a complex and difficult war, supporting a weak client state that was widely disliked by Afghans, with cross-border turmoil that threatened Pakistan, and with signs that the project was shaking, such as low voter turnout in elections, a resurgent Taliban and growing discontent at home.

Plus, Obama had a balancing act of his own. He had come to office pledging to take the Afghan war more seriously than his predecessor, as Afghanistan was the most vital and original place of conflict since 9/11. And as a Democrat whose national security credentials were light on taking office, he is probably under added political pressure not to be seen as retreating from a war. Yet in a nod to grand strategy, he also shares Dwight Eisenhower’s broader vision that everything must be judged in relation to how it affects other goals. Afghanistan had to be relativised against wider global considerations, and with the economic meltdown, America could no longer afford just to pay any price. There would be change, but what kind and how much?

Let’s map out the arguments for two alternative strategies.


National Interest: Those who back escalation argue that America’s national interest in Afghanistan-Pakistan is maximum, or at least extremely high. America simply cannot allow that region to turn again into a safe refuge and staging post for international terrorism. 9/11 taught the world that we cannot afford to ignore or neglect this country.

Space matters: to mobilise, train, recruit and organise. And Al Qaeda with sanctuary proved to be deadly, inflicting a complex, mass casualty atrocity. The damage inflicted, if serially repeated, would devastate America physically and economically, and endanger its very cohesion as a society.

Moreover, the region is vital to American interests. Afghanistan neighbours a fragile nuclear state. In a worse-case scenario, the nightmare for US policymakers could be realised, a confluence of lethal technology and apocalyptic extremism. Failure could lead to nuclear terrorism, amongst other intolerable outcomes.

America’s goal should therefore be to combat this terrorism not just by managing the symptoms, but curing the disease. That means birthing a strong centralised state, and a market democracy, in command of an army and police force, that is capable of clamping down on Islamist terrorist groups, and prevent a resurgence of the Taliban, that will not destabilise the region further or feed the breakup of Pakistan, and will contribute to a wider project, the attempt to alter the political condition of the Islamic and Arab-Islamic world.

America can only achieve its political outcomes here from a position of strength. If the Karzai government is to hold on and grow stronger, if elements of the Taliban are to moderate and renounce Al Qaeda, if decent intelligence is to be gathered, if economic growth and civil society is to rise, then there is no choice but to insert a massed military force that is capable of securing the population and midwifing a new Afghanistan.

America’s place in the world is also affected. Premature withdrawal would seriously hurt its credibility and that of NATO. Defeat would inspire and mobilise jihadists.

And America has a moral obligation to Afghans. To draw down would be a betrayal and would damage its legitimacy and standing in the world.

Armed nationbuilding, at full-court press scale, is the only responsible course.

Means and Ways:  The US has the tools and the circumstances to do this.

It has a military force that has reformed itself and sharpened its ‘small wars’ sword, so that it is a long way from the force that invaded Iraq in 2003. It is doctrinally sound and has embraced the core principles of population-centric warfare. Iraq for all its differences shows that a seemingly impossible situation can be turned around with proper resources, good doctrine, political will and the creation of a critical space of security in which progress can take place.

It also has the circumstances: the Taliban remain unpopular in Afghanistan.  They are not the established, tightly organised force of nationalism that the Vietnamese communists were. They are a coalition that lacks unity and lacks widespread support.

Pakistan has also shown that it is willing and able to take the fight to the Taliban when it feels directly threatened. And the Taliban have created a blowback against themselves in Pakistani territories. A proper campaign in Afghanistan can ensure that they are pressed effectively from both sides. Now is not the time to take our foot off its throat.


National interest: A national interest exists but it is more limited. The line between Afghanistan and 9/11 was a crooked one, with many links that could be broken. In terms of ‘space’, 9/11 was made possible not simply by training camps and refuges in Afghanistan, but by spaces in the first world. 9/11 was partly concocted in Hamburg, and in flight schools in Florida. It was possible also because of basic failures and breakdowns in American domestic law enforcement and counter-terrorism. Indeed, one result of 9/11 was precisely to get the state’s and the world’s attention, so that perversely, it is now vastly more difficult even in inflict low-tech, medium scale terrorist attacks against the West because of the new vigilance, energy and focus on global counter-terrorism. Al Qaeda’s ability to inflict megadeath has not been definitively ended, but has been seriously curtailed. Accordingly, we can afford to place greater limits on the serious costs and sacrifices we will make.

So why Afghanistan in particular? Al Qaeda at its core might be a few hundred guerillas in the mountains. But it and its affiliates also operate in Yemen and Somalia. Are we to apply the logic of escalation everywhere? To send brigades into every potential ‘safe haven’, especially if it was in an ambitious nationbuilding mission, would be an unsustainable policy.

What about Pakistan? The presence of troops in Afghanistan and their effect on Pakistan is critical but contested. Escalationists argue that a serious war effort helps to keep the Taliban contained and manageable, and thus serves Pakistan’s stability. Conversely, extricationists argue that a military occupation in Afghanistan energizes resistance and revolt. Not only does it play into Islamists’ rhetoric about battling a Crusading interloper. It also leads to the creation of ‘accidental guerrillas’, people who would otherwise not fight the US, taking up arms against their troops and personnel because they are on their soil. Military occupations are historically a great inflaming, radicalising force.  Indeed, successful military operations or ‘drives’ against the Taliban could help shift violence and instability towards Pakistan, where our most vital interests lie.

What about credibility? Actually, NATO’s credibility does not have to rely on its capacity to achieve almost impossible political outcomes outside its territories. And America’s actual perceived willingness to defend itself and its allies probably does not rest on it either.  Prolonged occupation in a lost cause signals weakness and folly, not strength. If we don’t want Afghanistan to become a credibility crisis, we should stop rhetorically and symbolically over-loading it with such highly-charged significance. Just about every piece of scholarship on ‘credibility wars’ supports this.

Means/Ways: There are major constraints that make it unwise to escalate.

First, the condition of Afghanistan itself. It is an impoverished, fractured and tortured country. Many of the preconditions for a failed counterinsurgency campaign can be found (there is external sanctuary for the enemy, we lack a viable political proxy that can unite the country, etc). Geopolitically, it is extremely difficult to project power over the country from the capital city, which is not a strong seat of government (unlike, say, Baghdad). Instead, much power and authority is localised. This makes the project so difficult that pursuing it would attract intolerable costs and commitments that exceed our scarce resources and our power.

Second, the costs. We are probably talking hundreds of billions of dollars more, once we reckon on expensive things like replacement costs for military equipment, veterans care, etc. And the casualty bill presents a human cost, possibly of hundreds of lives to add to the approximately 900 US lives already lost there. This in itself is modest compared to many wars, but then again, if this war is both unnecessary and unwise, it makes those losses excessive.

Third, we don’t have the American people on board. For better or worse, they don’t support the war and aren’t sold on the rationale for it. This matters partly because it makes it harder to wage the war itself. A democratic government and political class is typically sensitive to its standing in public opinion, and will not prosecute the war to its full extent if it could result in political death. More subtly, divisive and polarising wars consume governments, polarise opinion, drain political capital, make it harder to get things done. The example of Lyndon Johnson will haunt Obama in this regard. Vietnam admittedly was a deadlier war, but then again, we are in worse economic times.

Fourth, the Iraq analogy should be a warning, not an encouragement. The ‘surge’ was heroic and tactically successful, but strategically the jury is still out. It may not have led to a political reconciliation, but may have only postponed a civil war, or range of internal wars, by a few years. This process ambitious nationbuilding leaves a similar problem: a weak client state in a fragile country with unknown but dangerous consequences.

Given that America does have a limited interest in Afghanistan, we have to think hard about how to align its resources and its goals.  A range of blueprints are on the table. What they have in common is a more limited effort with scaled back objectives, and undertaken more from afar. The goal is not to remove AQ definitively from the map, but ensure that the region remains a difficult and dangerous one from which to operate. With a smaller footprint and the full range of its capabilities from electronic eavesdropping to surveillance to drones, as well as on-the-ground special forces, spies and paid proxies, America can meet these objectives. It can also contribute more indirectly to state-building, aid and advice.

As the US shifts from armed nationbuilding to a mix of counter-terrorism, containment and deterrence, it could be that this would result in a return of the Taliban to power. It is odd that escalationists who often stress the Taliban’s unpopularity also warn that without an American presence, it might sweep to power.

But even in that bleak scenario, America has the means to support anti-Taliban proxies, it has demonstrated the capability that it can wage swift punitive war to topple a regime that harbours terrorists, and it will have to co-exist by setting a baseline that it will not tolerate a state that harbours AQ.

There is a dark side to this. In the case of withdrawal and a Taliban resurgence in part or the whole of the country, America would have to tolerate  domestic religious fundamentalism as a practical necessity. This would be bad news for many Afghans, and America has some obligation to continue providing aid. But America is not in Afghanistan as part of an open-ended altruistic mission. It is there, quite simply, because it was attacked. And its goal should remain limited and precise, to disrupt the source of attack.

An Islamist revolution would not be the most likely outcome, however, at least if we accept the notion that the Taliban are unpopular. A mix of carrots and sticks could be applied from a distance to encourage the ideological and political divisions between fighters of local jihad and fighters of international jihad. Moreover, an American gradual withdrawal would encourage other players in the neighbourhood, such as China, Russia, Pakistan and India, to take up more of the burden for Afghanistan’s progress in their own interests. Central Asia without America militarily occupying it will probably not result in anarchy. It will mean that other countries cannot ‘free ride’ on America the global cop, but will have to contribute more to stability themselves.

More concretely, America should focus on the achievable and affordable things it can do. It can offer more civilian aid and expertise to Pakistan, the true heartland of its interests in the region. It can continue to strengthen global counter-terrorism policing which has made a major contribution to weakening the capabilities and disrupting the plots of Al Qaeda.

This should be America’s ultimate goal. Instead of far-reaching political transformation of the Islamic world, it should be the achievable and affordable one that in fact it has almost reached: marginalising AQ as a second-order nuisance and ensuring that it spends most of its time and energy trying to stay alive.

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