The first salvo in the Afghanistan Strategy Debate

Scott Wedman writes the first essay Andrew Exum posts at Abu Muqawama, the first salvo in his Afghanistan Strategy Debate.  It is an astonishingly weak first choice, considering that Exum appears to support the war.  I have inserted rebuttals. 

The war in Afghanistan is in the interests of the United States for four reasons.

First, increasing stability in Afghanistan and preventing Taliban control of the country deprives Al Qaeda of an important training ground, making an attack on the American homeland, American forces deployed abroad, and other Americans abroad less likely.

He starts with the Big Lie of the Afghanistan War.  Al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan had no significant role in 9-11 (per the available evidence), and could be destroyed if re-established.  For more detail go here.

Second, fighting the Taliban undermines their efforts to make further gains in Pakistan, which matters given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and, if the Taliban gets nuclear weapons it would not be good for American national interests. Even given deterrence and all those good things, it still massively increases the risks to the American homeland for the Taliban — and probably Al Qaeda — to have access to nuclear weapons.

Another weak card.  There is little evidence — other than fevered speculation — that the Taliban poses a serious threat to the Pakistan army and government.  The fifties had the “bomber gap”.  The sixties had the “missile gap.”  We have “tottering Pakistan.”  Discussed in more detail, with links to a wide range of experts, here.

Third, while it is unpopular with progressives to say it like this for a variety of reasons, the Taliban stand firmly against nearly everything we stand for as Americans: rights for women, rights for GLBT, other constitutional rights that are protected in the United States, etc. Abandoning the Afghan people to that fate would be awful. Reasonable people might argue that that is not the responsibility of the United States – and at some level of cost, the argument swings. However, it is always important to keep in mind, even if we decide as a country to pull out of Afghanistan before the job is done, the fundamentally loathsome character of the Taliban and their beliefs about governance. Progressives should be just as angry about this, if not more so, than others in the United States.

Does Wedman believe many Americans support crusades?  How many societies “stand against nearly everything we stand for as Americans”?  Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Somalia.  We have “abandoned” (an odd choice of words) many people to their fate.  This is nuts on many levels — with flaws too obvious to deserve discussion.

Fourth, whether or not one agreed with the war in the first place, the United States has a lot of credibility now invested in Afghanistan. This administration in particular has singled it out as important even as it begins drawing down American forces in Iraq at a faster rate. To cut and run now would terribly damage American credibility around the world. Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda affiliates have explicitly cited the American withdrawal from Lebanon in the ‘80s and Somalia in the ‘90s as demonstrating the weak character of the United States, showing that Al Qaeda and its allies can succeed if they attack America and its interests enough. To withdraw from Afghanistan in a way that ceded control to the Taliban would be the single biggest propaganda victory for Al Qaeda possible, guaranteeing them new recruits, new energy, and thus arguably increasing the risk of attacks against the United States.

We cannot risk losing face!   It’s another echo from the Vietnam, an argument for continuing the war used by “realists” like McGeorge Bundy.  The reply — proven correct by events — was that America’s reputation has deeper foundations than ephemeral prestige, and the real danger was committing our power to propping up a weak State like Vietnam (or Afghanistan).  Note that, as with Vietnam, nobody cites actual allies worrying about this (it’s a quirk of our minds, not theirs).

These are all big picture arguments. One might argue that continuing to fight in Afghanistan will make all of these things worse and thus the United States should leave. But I do not think it is fair to say that the United States has no interests in Afghanistan in particular or Central Asia in general. I’m not saying these interests necessarily mandate a particular strategy in the war or the use of particular tactics. But they do suggest that withdrawal from Afghanistan would be dangerous for American interests.

Does anyone say that “the US has no interests in Afghanistan in particular or Central Asia in general”?  But he cites no substantial interests.  Certainly nothing worth waging war over.  We have interests across the globe, but diplomacy and aid (military and development) suffice elsewhere.

Wedman’s reasoning commits the broken window fallacy.  Our resources are finite — including the attention of senior policy makers.  Hence the need for relative rankings of strategic interests, for resources devoted to one crisis might instead produce greater benefits elsewhere.  This is almost always ignored by US geopoliticans, who typically seem to believe that America has unlimited wealth.  More on this another day.


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For more information about this topic

To see all posts about our new wars:

Some posts about America’s empire:

  1. Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn, 24 January 2009
  2. Prof Nouriel Roubini describes “The Decline of the American Empire”, 18 August 2008
  3. The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, 8 September 2008
  4. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
  5. “End of Empire” by David Roche, 29 November 2008
  6. The transition between Imperial reigns: what will it mean for America?, 16 December 2008
  7. To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, 6 March 2009
  8. Team Obama, guardians of the American Empire (did you expect anything else?), 14 April 2009
  9. Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire, 27 May 2009
  10. A wonderful discussion about the American Empire, 24 June 2009

5 thoughts on “The first salvo in the Afghanistan Strategy Debate”

  1. As to the fourth point I would offer up the suggestion that in having pledged the power and prestige of the west in this endeavour, and then failing to achieve anything of note, our political leaders and army commanders are doing far more irreparable harm to it.

    The broken window fallacy is a perfect point in describing the hidden costs. It has been pointed out in earlier posts just how expensive it is to maintain this country. (if it can be called that)It exists on sufferance…we have to pay to maintain it. The Afghan government simply cannot stand on its own feet without that pay cheque every month.
    All this money spent and it has none of the services or infrastructure we take for granted here in the west. Schools stand empty because there are no teachers. Power plants break down because there are not enough skilled workers. It doesn’t have a proper health service or public services for that matter. It does not even have a public works department…no one to maintain access to water, repair and maintain roads. No delivery of public services, no local police in rural areas were the majority of the people live. No factories and no one to work in them…they literally have nothing that we here in the west would consider as absolutely basic essentials.

    We cannot afford this, we simply cannot afford it…which means ultimately that we cannot win. And I note that Gen Sir David Richards; who is taking over from Gen Dannatt as chief of the general staff, declared we will be there for 40 years stating that

    “Demanding, certainly, but winnable,” he said. he later added “We must remember, though, that we are not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland.”

    Were is the cash coming from for a 40 year war? China?

  2. FM: “There is little evidence — other than fevered speculation — that the Taliban poses a serious threat to the Pakistan army and government. The fifties has the ”bomber gap”. The sixties had the “missle gap.” We have “tottering Pakistan.” Discussed in more detail, with links to a wide range of experts, here.

    Fabius, what evidence have you seen on the threat of capture of Pakistani nukes by jihadidts from the Taliban, Al-Qaeda,and related? I am somewhat concerned about the safety of the Pakistani nukes, and would hate to see them fall into the wrong hands (as would India no doubt). Have you seen any good open source data evaluating this threat?

    The caveat is that thanks to AQ Khan, the proverbial cat may be out of the bag already. Regardless, I feel that India should be policing the Af-Pak region if anyone should be, not the USA and NATO. The Indians have a much surer grasp of the cultural subtlties involved than we do, anyway. We went in there to get Bin Laden, who may very well be dead of kidney failure already. Why don’t we “declare victory” and bring our people home. I see no coherent strategic vision, nor any attainable objectives, nor means of achieving them even if they existed. We have no business nation building in Afghanistan, which is exactly what we are trying to do.

    The fourth generation conflict of most critical strategic importance to the USA lies on its Southern border with Mexico, not in the Hindu Kush.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Click on “here” in the above quote.

  3. FM, did I just hear you quote the “broken window fallacy”? Forgive me for sounding snarky, but are Keynsians allowed to reference such? It is the standard line of defence libertarians pull out when asked to pay up tax money for stimulus-bills, is it not?
    Fabius Maximus replies: No, it is not contrary to Keynesian theory. Direct government spending works when households have a high marginal propensity to save, businesses have little desire to invest, and the economy is in a liquidity trap.

  4. Perhaps we could hold the Afghan elections in another country , such as US or UK . We could have proxy electors ,too . I think I’ll vote for Malalai Joya . Voting will be quite safe as our soldiers can come home to protect us . Then we can give the new elected leaders the prop-up money and leave them to go home and get on with it .

  5. @James Morton,

    Point well taken about the decrease in prestige caused by these kinds of adventures. If you want to maintain a mystique of power, it doesn’t pay to have it publicly tested too often, except under highly favorable conditions. Much as the Iraq war was intended as a demonstration of American invincibility and instead showed that the emperor might not be naked, but he could be fought to a stalemate by a few thousand lightly armed guerrillas. A reassuring message for potential adversaries no doubt.

    I think of it as the military equivalent of the old adage: “Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

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