Summary: a debate about our role in the Afghanistan War, and more generally about the limits of America’s power and military power. As our share of global income declines, this is increasingly the same thing.
“Don’t ‘pull an Iraq’ in Afghanistan“, Benjamin H. Friedman, Christian Science Monitor (3 April 2008) — “Massive state-building efforts are not a good use of tax dollars.”
This article sparked a discussion about the Afghanistan War with Joshua Foust at Registan.net (“Central Asia News – All Central Asia, All The Time”). What can we gain by fighting in Afghanistan? Is it worth the cost? See “Why we fight” for the full text of the debate.
In the opening round, Friedman makes what I consider powerful arguments.
This week at a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, American officials asked Europeans to send more troops to the war in Afghanistan. Leaders in both the Democratic and Republican Parties agree that higher troop levels and a deeper commitment to state-building are the path to victory in Afghanistan. But both sides are wrong, and Iraq shows why.
…what US involvement in Iraq principally demonstrates is the limitation of American military power in reordering foreign societies. US troops can check violence in areas they occupy, but cannot repair the tensions that produce such violence. Those tensions stem from political problems that only Iraqis can solve, as the current unrest in the Shiite south indicates.
If Iraq teaches Americans that flooding troops into other states racked by civil war and that undertaking massive state-building efforts is a good use of tax dollars, they are misguided. Disappointingly, US foreign-policy makers have embraced this false lesson. The politicians and think tank experts likely to guide the next administration’s military policy seem to believe that if Americans only plan better, coordinate more, and master counter-insurgency doctrine, the country can succeed in future wars meant to build foreign governments.
The public may have learned enough to change their opinion, but Washington’s hubris is essentially intact.
…Defending American interests in Afghanistan requires nothing more than ensuring the absence of a haven for international terrorists and making an example of those who provide one. Those two reasonable goals justified the war in Afghanistan, unlike the Iraq war.
…Only Afghans can properly build Afghanistan.
This nicely summarizes what Chet Richards writes in his masterly new book If We Can Keep It (see a review here).
In reply, Foust advocates for a large military involvement in Afghanistan — one of the best I have seen for this war. Foust is an area expert, so these are not frivolous arguments. There are three components to his case. First, the need for troops…
For the moment, there is simply no available substitute for the military in maintaining order in Afghanistan. That it does so imperfectly is a testament to its underfunding: there are simply not enough troops to provide meaningful security in their areas.
Whose military? America has neither the wealth nor the power to be the world’s policeman – let alone the wisdom to play God in foreign lands. Should the Tailban rule Afghanistan, or the Pashtun, or our hand-picked puppets? Should Afghanistan exist as a unitary state? Perhaps we should let them sort it out.
From a different perspective, whar are the basis for our intervention? Perhaps Allah’s law, the part describing government of the faithful by infidels. What is this our obligation to Afghanistan, and what does Afghanistan owe us in return? Money, obedience, gratitude?
Perhaps charity, an obligation under many religious and ethnic systems. Sending combat troops — armed men to kill for reasons of State policy — is not charity. It is a red line, to be crossed only for the most serious of reasons. Perhaps utilitarian grounds, enlightened self-interest. More on that below.
Second, the locals want the troops…
The other key difference between Iraq and Afghanistan? Iraq can quite easily be called a hostile occupation: most of the population opposes the U.S. presence.
Survey after survey, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggests that while the typical Afghan has become disillusioned with the U.S. presence, they’d still rather live under U.S. than Taliban suzerainty. That matters a tremendous amount: normal people on the ground want us to keep the Taliban away, but they don’t trust us to. We have given them plenty of reason to think so.
Wait until they get their US income tax forms, and legions of colonial administrators to remake their society in the image we determine best. Perhaps the survey did not ask the right questions, or we did not understand their answers.
Also, those “typical Afghans” presumably do not include the folks shooting at us. There must be many atypical Afghans; otherwise we would not need to send more troops.
Third, Foust forecasts bad consequences if we do not wage war in Afghanistan.
We thought we had no obligation to rebuild Afghanistan after we helped to shatter it in the 1980s. The result was a decade of unimaginable misery resulting in the Taliban and al-Qaeda… and the attacks of September 11, 2001. W e’ve seen what happens when we wash our hands and walk away, consigning them to their fate. Why would we want to repeat that? Surely the cost is too high.
This is a sample set of one, from a large number of post-WWII military expeditions to help foreigners. For example, we have tried all forms of intervention in Africa. The results have varied from ineffective to horrible. Why is Afghanistan different? What is the basis for belief that our intervention will have good effects, not creating resentment and hostility — leading to bad or worse results than just providing aid?
Saying that conditions are bad and military intervention is the only alternative ignores history and logic. To use an analogy, this is like a pre-modern doctor saying bleeding the patient is the only alternative to painful death. Now we know that doing nothing, however difficult, is the better course. The patient will have to find his own cure. We can help with aid and training. But crossing the line to armed force, shaping their society for them, probably does more harm than good.
Afghanistan’s history suggests that withdrawal will have direct, and dire, security consequences for the U.S. and Europe.
If van Creveld is correct, we will see more States fail during the next few generations. Since military interventions have a low success rate, we might rely on — for lack of better tools — simple carrot and stick “solutions.” Aid and — if that fails — strikes and raids (either pre-emptive or retailiatory). That we want better solutions does not mean that we have better solutions. Life is like that.
Foust also includes some cogent critiques of our aid and assistance programs.
The real failure in Afghanistan has been in the International Community. I’ve long been a critic of how aid and development work has proceeded — it’s seemed systematically designed to undercut the national government. … At the same time, money gets sunk into opium eradication (which also systematically undercuts support for the national government) while other, institution-building measures, such as the World Bank’s capacity building projects, or anti-corruption efforts, languish with unfunded mandates.
My thanks to Joshua Foust for this discussion. The comments section of this post at Registan.net has the full discussion, including a response from Friedman himself. Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
I, “Where Less Is More“, Rory Stewart, New York Times op-ed (23 July 2007) — Except:
America and its allies are in danger of repeating the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and even some Republicans are insisting on withdrawing from Iraq and sending more troops and resources to southern Afghanistan. The Bush administration’s gloomy National Intelligence Estimate last week on the fight against Al Qaeda will only lead others to make such calls. But they should think again. T he intervention in Afghanistan has gone far better than that in Iraq largely because the American-led coalition has limited its ambitions and kept a light footprint, leaving the Afghans to run their own affairs.
II. “Winning not a standard of success in Afghanistan, says general“, Canwest News Service (7 April 2008) — Except:
“A lot of people talk, ‘We need more troops, more troops.’ I think it is more about better synchronization between security, development and governance in terms of a comprehensive plan for Afghanistan.”
III. More Troops Needed in Afghanistan?, Abu Muqawama (8 April 2008)
For more information about the Afghanistan War
- “Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq“, by Benjamin H. Friedman, Harvey Sapolsky and Christopher Preble, Cato Institute (13 February 2008) — What lessons should we take from Iraq? How do they apply to Afghanistan?
- Testimony about the war’s status and trends on 2 April before the House Foreign Affairs Committee by David W. Barno (Lt. General, US Army, retired), Director of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies: click here for the 3 page PDF. He does not paint a happy picture.
- How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents? (21 March 2008) — Why the war in Afghanistan is not the “good war.”
- Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan? (9 April 2008) — A debate with Joshua Foust.
- Click here for other posts by Fabius Maximus about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.