Foust describes the case for our war in Afghanistan

Today’s must-read article about the war: “The Case for Afghanistan: Strategic Considerations“, Joshua Foust, Registan, 27 August 2009. The second in this series (the first was discussed here); it deserves to be read in full.  Please do so, as the Af-pak war may have vast effects on the US and the world.  Here are Foust’s conclusions.

  1. A basic minimal stability in Afghanistan, such that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda is likely to develop a staging ground for international attacks, whether against neighboring countries or the United States and Europe;
  2. The permanent delegitimization of Pakistan’s insurgents, such that they can no longer push Pakistan and India toward nuclear conflict;

The first has some degree of plausability.   To some extent it seems a way to bring in the “prevent another 9-11” theory (the big lie, discussed in You can end our war in Afghanistan).  {text revised 30 August}

Then Foust moves to even bigger justifications.  Now we’re preventing atomic war!  This might become the major reason for the war, as the previous ones are demolished (i.e., prevent another 9-11, nation-building).  As Foust explains:

And lest anyone think it is appropriate to write off the India-Pakistan conflict as somebody else’s problem, it is never somebody else’s problem when nuclear weapons are involved. As Jari Lindholm reminded, India and Pakistan have come a hair’s breadth from nuclear conflict twice over Kashmir. And like it or not, it is a compelling and vital American interest to prevent nuclear conflict in South Asia — which makes “fixing” Afghanistan in some way also a vital American interest.

Regional security is one of those topics that gets mentioned casually by many pundits but never really articulated. It is by far Ahmed Rashid’s most convincing argument, that supporting stability in Centraland South Asia is a compelling interest not just for the U.S., but for the West in general.

When it comes to Pakistan, the big danger is not in a Taliban takeover, or even in the Taliban seizure of nuclear weapons — I have never believed that the ISI could be that monumentally stupid (though they are incredibly stupid for letting things get this far out of hand). The big danger, as it has been since 1999, is that insurgents, bored or underutilized in Afghanistan, will spark another confrontation between India and Pakistan, and that that confrontation will spillover into nuclear conflict. That is worth blood and treasure to prevent

This builds on recent posts by Jari Lindholm at his blog, “The stupidest man on earth”:

This sounds serious.  How odd it is to learn why we fight only after 8 years of war. 

Now that the original reasons are questioned (to put it mildly), the war’s advocates find new reasons to continue fighting.   Perhaps we should investigate before declaring Code Red and expanding the war.  As we did not during 2001-2003, uncritically believing the “prevent another 9-11” theory, plus Iraq’s ties to al Qaeda and possession of WMD’s.

Some questions

(1)  Do the folks involved consider this a serious problem?  Do they believe that we’re the solution? 

(2)  If so, why have their governments not formally asked us for help?  (“us” being whoever they believe best suited for the task).  Otherwise we’re playing Father Knows Best.  Neo-colonialism.  Their request for assistance would give our efforts greater legitimacy — to the people in the area, the other nations of the world, and (not least) the American people.

(3)  How many of the people in Afghanistan and Pakistan want want our help?  Forcing it upon them might destabilize the region even further.  Evidence from Pakistan suggests that our efforts are unwanted.

A survey commissioned by Al Jazeera in Pakistan has revealed a widespread disenchantment with the United States for interfering with what most people consider internal Pakistani affairs. … When respondents were asked what they consider to be the biggest threat to the nation of Pakistan, 11% of the population identified the Taliban fighters, who have been blamed for scores of deadly bomb attacks across the country in recent years. Another 18% said that they believe that the greatest threat came from neighbouring India … But an overwhelming number, 59% of respondents, said the greatest threat to Pakistan right now is, in fact, the US, a donor of considerable amounts of military and development aid.

For more on this see The love of an ally is sweet to behold.

(4)  What local experts see this danger — and see us as part of the solution?  Or is this a theory held only by western experts?  Like the domino theory of the 1960’s, where the dominoes themselves did not see the danger.

Update – the story spreads

  1. Analyzing the Case for Afghanistan“, Michael Cohen, 27 August 2009
  2. Shedding Blood For Pakistan?“, Chris Bodenner, posted at andrew Sullivan’s site at The Atlantic, 30 August 2009
  3. The Silliest Argument Yet for Staying in Afghanistan“, Bernard Finel, 30 August 2009


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For more information about this topic

To see all posts about our new wars:

Some posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”, 13 May 2009
  3. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  4. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  5. “War without end”, a great article by George Wilson, 27 June 2009
  6. “Strategic Calculus and the Afghan War” by George Friedman of Stratfor, 17 July 2009
  7. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1, 18 July 2009
  8. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  9. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 3, 20 July 2009
  10. You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009
  11. The love of an ally is sweet to behold, 21 August 2009 — About Pakistan.
  12. We must stay in Afghanistan to prevent atomic war!, 24 August 2009

31 thoughts on “Foust describes the case for our war in Afghanistan”

  1. Why couldn’t we deal with the anti-Indian terrorists along with al Qaeda in Afghanistan merely by leaving some counter-terrorism forces there, as has been suggested by some (Col. Pat Lang springs to mind)? …Assuming there is any validity to Foust’s argument to begin with, that is, and your four questions pretty well skewered it.

    What ultimately needs to happen in the region is the borders need to be redrawn, but whatever sort of Empire we are, we aren’t the sort that redraws borders. So far.

  2. Nicholas Weaver

    For your questions, I think its the phenomenon which Boyd described and which drew me into trying to understand OODA loops and all that stuff, “Incestual Amplification”.

    Those in power really do, honestly, and completely believe that the US intervention in Afghanistan is the solution to “our” problems. But its the result of an individual and collective analysis produced by selective filtering: only listening to the reasons to stay and ignoring the reasons to go.

    Thus, eg, although 2 is clearly not there (the Afghanistan government consisting at the high level of US-blessed almost-puppets and the low level of the same warlord-groups who were fighting it out a decade ago, thus could not give real consent even if they wanted to), that is one of the bad-facts filtered out of the decision making process.

    Thus my question: How can we get our institutions and leadership of our government to remove their intellectual blinders and biases? Because your questions have rather obvious answers when asked without filters on inputs.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Also, for more about these things I recommend reading “Think Evil® – The Security Mindset“, Nicholas Weaver, International Computer Science Institute, no date! (soemtime in 2009) — 133 slides, worthwhile reading.

    As for the war — I wonder about the reasons for the passion of the war’s advocates. Based on a half-dozen or so email conversations during the past 2 months, perhaps there is something deep at work here — beyond the surface reasons. Could the war result in part from some atavistic impulses? In “Culture of War”, Martin van Creveld shows that we love war on many levels.

  3. Yes, preventing nuclear war in South Asia is a very desirable goal. But what exactly does A. have to do with this? Controlling AlQ is a matter of cutting off its Arab funding and paying tribesmen to kill all the Arabs and other foreigners –except Americans and Euros of course– still around. Then working on an accomodation that allows the Pashtuns who are divided by a line created by British Imperial Interest to be reunited. Then, all we have to worry about is how to resurrect a failed state called Pakistan that was 35 million at its founding, is now 175 million and at least 80% illiterate. Too bad, India does not want it back. How about a joint economic development plan for the Indus valley which they share, as India controls most of Pakistan’s water sources. What we are doing in A. is seeking to control a mess we in part created by intervening there in the 80s and now helping the Pakis control evils they funded and unleashed themselves.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not believe Pakistan is a failed state in any meaningful sense. See the various definitions (you can find the links at the Wikipedia entry). Or the 2008 annual failed states article in Foreign Policy. For a longer discussion of Pakistan as a failed state, see Why are we fighting in Pakistan? (14 May 2009).

  4. man, are more people really dusting off the nuclear war bogeyman? is Foust really going to make that assertion even though it flies in the face of his qualifications? true, that Taliban and Al Qaeda didn’t get along before the war, but they will after! true, the ISI would never let the Taliban get nuclear weapons (as if they were ever in a position or had the responsibility of managing them), but bored insurgents could start a war between India and Pakistan. and then things would really be messed up! too bad for all of us who don’t support the war that there’s all this strong evidence to back up these assertions.

    i think Robert Peterson’s comment when FM first aired this wackiness got to the heart of the issue–we’re chasing ghosts now. we are now team America, international ghostbusters.

    then again, from a policy standpoint, i guess this kind of thinking does make sense. you invent a straw man of an enemy, tilt at him, and if nothing happens (as is likely) the policy is successful. if something does happen, the only thing that went wrong was we weren’t vigilant enough and its justification to keep on fighting the terrorists, but this time with a stronger mandate. it’s a policymaker’s dream.

  5. Political “science” is the most dubious of the academic rackets spawned in the last half century. Should be giving Nobels for it in another generation. I do not wish to compare Pakistan with non-states, most of Africa. It is in the heartland of human civilization, has remarkable people and a deep culture. It also has serfdom despite a century of effort to reform. It fought a vicious, almost genocidal war to prevent its western provinces from seceding despite a claim to represent the Islamic “interest” in South Asia. More than 80% of its 175 million people are illiterate despite claims it is otherwise. Millions go hungry every day. It has had numerous coups and been ruled by military cliques for more than half its life. Two of its most popular leaders have been murdered, one by a kangaroo court and one assassinated, probably in collusion with security forces. Helping Pakistan heal itself is imoportant; quibbling over labels made up by pukka sahibs is not, but kept afloat by Arab money, Chinese machinations, and American delusions is hardly a way for it to become whole.

  6. Nicholas Weaver

    Thanks for the very complementary link to my slideset, it means a lot coming from you. The tuorial was given on July 15th, 2009. I should have put a date on the slides.

    FM: “As for the war — I wonder about the reasons for the passion of the war’s advocates. Based on a half-dozen or so email conversations during the past 2 months, perhaps there is something deep at work here — beyond the surface reasons. Could the war result in part from some atavistic impulses? In “Culture of War”, Martin van Creveld shows that we love war on many levels.

    Hmm?!? That seems a very interesting hypothesis. Especially since we are now in a world where so many of the war’s advocates are without real risk?

    Isn’t this why, back in 03-04, some anti-war activists were trying to get the draft reinstated?

  7. FM: “Could the war result in part from some atavistic impulses? In “Culture of War”, Martin van Creveld shows that we love war on many levels.

    Nicholas Weaver: “That seems a very interesting hypothesis. Especially since we are now in a world where so many of the war’s advocates are without real risk? Isn’t this why, back in 03-04, some anti-war activists were trying to get the draft reinstated?”

    I remember that, it was Chuck Rangel who introduced the legislation I believe.

    I think those are both interesting points, but I think these wars also had some real politick motives to them. Democracy and free markets to open up resource in Iraq and to provide an example of Arab democracy to the Middle East on the one hand, and it just so happened we’d have military bases and presence surrounding Iran on the other. I think a love of war and a removal from the violence makes these goals seem more rational, but I’m not sure they are in and of themselves intrinsic motivators.
    Fabius Maximus replies: And our “rational” motives for Afghanistan? (Please don’t mention the pipe-stan nonsense).

  8. I thought you might be interested in Stephen Grey’s piece in the new issue of Prospect, in which he examines where Britain has gone wrong in Helmand, and where it continues to go wrong. The piece is free to read at Prospect’s website: “Cracking on in Helmand“, Stephen Grey 27 August 2009 — “Britain’s bloody campaign in Afghanistan has been marred by hubris, confusion and a failure to understand our Taliban adversaries. Finally, some lessons have been learned. But it might already be too late.”

    Please feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comment section below the piece.

  9. In the Thirty’s, we saw mechanized farming and fossil fuel derived fertilizer drive down the cost of food and practically eliminate its historically large price volatility. This greatly reduced the incentives for making war, and explains how places like Pakistan went from 37 million to 175 million in a few generations.
    Simultaneously, we developed mechanized warfare, and atom bombs. It took a while to get the hang of dealing with these, but in the 90’s it was looking like we were getting the kinks out of (dare I say it) this “New World Order”, enabled by, and more important, understood by world leaders, through the prism of these technologies.
    Try as I might, what comes next is not clear, but our problem seems to me embedded in these now old leadership thought processes, which are still moored to once useful and relevant notions like tribalism, and its image through the technology prism, nationalism. These constructs, already tattered, will fail if we try using them to get from 6 billion souls to 12 billion on Earth. At a grass roots level, people get this, but our leadership is not keeping up.

  10. Aha ! We have hit the crux of the matter . Insurgents , like the military , get …bored .
    The answer is simple : Football . Once the US ‘gets’ the thing with Manchester United and Real Madrid , the human race can rub along together .

  11. Nobody has yet disavowed the New American Century doctrine of making sure that no one, in any part of the globe, can challenge our military superiority. And military superiority is only the outer layer of economic domination. So, our basic strategic stance guarantees that we will always be fighting somewhere on the globe, just to maintain the image of our dominance.

    The deeper reasons for perpetual war, however, are
    1) the major place military providers have in our economy; and
    2) the usefulness of war for keeping the domestic population distracted from the issues that really matter to them, and demanding their fair share of social resources. I

    magine the unrest, maybe outright revolution, that would occur if one half the federal budget was suddenly freed up for any purposes the people desired?

  12. According to Faust, one of our two goals should be:

    The permanent delegitimization of Pakistan’s insurgents, such that they can no longer push Pakistan and India toward nuclear conflict;

    In this context, the legitimacy of our own position is vital. However, today’s NYT article about alleged fraud in the Afghan elections reads like something out of the Onion:

    Karzai Using Rift With U.S. to Gain Favor With Afghans
    A few days after, reports surfaced in international and Afghan news outlets that Mr. Holbrooke had demanded a runoff election in what one report characterized as the “explosive” meeting with Mr. Karzai, a charge which the Americans deny vociferously.

    The administration officials accused Mr. Karzai’s agents of leaking to the news media select portions of the exchange between the two men, in order to make it look as if Obama administration were trying to force the rightful winner of the Afghan presidential elections — Mr. Karzai — into holding a runoff to satisfy American demands.

    Mr. Karzai, a senior administration official said, “has a longstanding pattern of creating a straw man of America’s positions, and rallying people around that. But contrary to those reports, no one shouted, no one walked out” of the meeting, he said.

    Whatever the case, the atmosphere may now have become so poisoned between the United States and Mr. Karzai that the Obama administration will be hampered no matter what course it takes. Administration officials said initial characterizations of the success of the elections referred solely to the fact that they took place at all, despite threats by the Taliban and more than 200 rocket attacks in southern Afghanistan on election day.

    As an aside, we should note that these Afghan election fraud allegations undermine our opposition to the recent election results in Iran. Iran, unlike Afghanistan, does pose ascertainable nuclear issues.

  13. The Independant has reported that McCrystal will ask for 20,000 more troops. If true my estimate is that is about $ 32 billion per year of up front costs on top of the current expenditures. It would seem that the US is well past the point at which a “victory” as the word is normally understood, can be achieved. The danger is that McCrystal being only concerned with tactics and Obama being only concerned with re-election will continue to pile in resources regardless of the long term effect on the US economy or military.

    If the cost of defeating the Taliban is several trillion dollars in long term costs can victory actually be achieved? Masterful Inactivity is probably the only answer that doesn’t harm the US in the long term.

  14. Comment #15: “If the cost of defeating the Taliban is several trillion dollars in long term costs can victory actually be achieved?”

    As others have aptly pointed out, that “cost” of several trillion dollars to some is “revenue” to others. So of course “victory” can be achieved – at least for those who are enjoying the revenue.

  15. Re 11, the point about soccer is that although it can result in riots and violence it very rarely does . Supporting a team a person can release adrenalin and emotion ,indulge all those warlike fantasies : tribe ! territory !
    nation ! warriors! leaders ! victory ! honourable defeat !
    Worldwide , all you need is a few players , a little stretch of wasteland and a ball .
    When Germany hosted the World Cup , they made a brilliant job of it , deleted the bad traces of the past and made us all pro-German .
    In fact , it could be a mighty good idea to replace the Military chiefs in Afgh , with the German World Cup organising team .

  16. We could design a sport for TV, a hybrid of American football, and oh, I don’t know, say, Roller Derby. We could call it “Roller Ball”. Oh, wait…Rollerball (1975 film) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

  17. The game of Rollerball (from the 1975 film): “In the film, the world of 2018 is a global corporate state, containing entities such as the Energy Corporation, a global energy monopoly based in Houston which deals with nominally-peer corporations controlling access to all Transport, Luxury, Housing, Communication, and Food on a global basis.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: Many people thought this would be a viable game, using the rules at the start of the firm.

  18. FM, you have written up an adequate reply to the second one Froust’s points, but not the first. This is the key paragraph of this argument, and the one that the anti-COIN side of the debate most desperately needs to rebut:

    Since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, however, al Qaeda and the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) have become more tightly knit, with fewer internecine conflicts and fewer personality clashes at the top levels of leadership. This is, basically, typical insurgency behavior, but it also spells trouble for any talk of scaling back commitment, given the President’s preferred outcomes: despite what Michael Cohen asserted during our BloggingHeads segment, there is no evidence that the Taliban would suddenly renounce their relationship with al Qaeda should they retake the country. In fact, there is every reason to believe they will be better at both running the country and at managing their relationship with al Qaeda, since they’ve now had nearly a decade of experience of seeing what happens when they don’t.

    If you cannot fight back against this claim – and do not discredit Froust by pretending this argument is on the same level as the “big lie” – we do not even need to get in discussions about Pakistani atomic wars. This is, after all, why he stated this point first.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This just shows the absurd lengths to which pro-war folks will go, now that their primary justifications are demolished.
    (1) What evidence is there that al Qaeda needs staging areas to attack us or Europe (they didn’t use any for 9-11)?
    (2) The Taliban could use Afghanistan as a staging area to support Pashtun insurgents in Pakistan. Given the strength of the Pakistan Army, the danger seems slight.
    * Cross-border attacks would allow Pakistan to strike Afghanistan.
    * If Pakistan needs help, there are multi-national mechanisms for this.

  19. T. Greer: How does not employing a doctrine (Pop-Cent COIN) that the US doesn’t have the troops or money to execute with a doctrine (CT) that it does lead to a Taliban takeover? If the current Afghan government continued to be funded at the levels needed to sustain McCrystal’s ANSF escalation and with US air support how could the Taliban takeover? They would be automatically in a worse position than the current government as the vast majority of Afghans would not support . And this before the billions of dollars available and air power were taken into account. How could a “terrorist” group operate training camps in the face of US air power? How could the Taliban operate a government or military in the face of US air power?

  20. #19 .Big scale bad incidents are rare , but they get a big media coverage . If you’ve ever gone on protests , you’ll know a peaceful march of 100,000 persons gets no media interest until someone breaks a window , then Whaaazoom , cue cameras , action, headlines , moral outrage.
    Mini incidents do happen , and equate to mini mutinies or insurrections in warfare . ( and a Paradise of pure sweetness and love does sound rather boring , dont you think ? )
    I think Museums are a Good Thing , and another way of keeping the human race peacefully busy . But as with The Beautiful Game , you could claim Museums are all about looting , corruption and theft .

  21. @FM- I do not think that Foust is arguing that AQ needs the Taliban to stage such attacks. He is simply stating that having this makes the danger they pose exponentially greater. This is, at least, how I am reading the argument.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why? It sounds, at best, speculative. Absurdly flimsy reason to wage war.

  22. If I were naming fallacies I would give this one an impressive sounding Latin moniker: neccesitum ergo righteum – or some such – the belief that because something must be done, what currently is being done is the proper something.

    I’ll buy that a stable Afghanistan is important to keeping the Punjabs and Begalis from blasting each other into radioactive glass. But Regi’s argument is that the U.S. policy – to whit – turning Afghanistan into Vermont – is the right prescription. You don’t have to look any further than the recent election to realize what a slapstick routine the whole farce has become. Karzai is viewed as corrupt and incompetent and there’s no way in this world or the next that the Pashtun would accept the mostly Tajik Abdullah Abdullah.

    After 8 years its time to let the Afghans decide what sort of government they want, be it a president, a dictator or the grand Rama-lama of the Yak Lodge. But no government that we back will ever have a shred of legitimacy, and the idea “we” could delegitimze the insurgency made of Pakistani good ole boys, whose roots in the soil they’re fighting on probably stretches back past the casear’s time, is high fantasy.

    Beyond that everything else is small potatoes. Who cares about narcotics? Jesus, Larry and Curly there are vast fields of weed growing in the training area of the local army base. I’m willing to trade some strung out Scottish Trainspotters if it keeps the suicide attacks down, be they in Moscow, Madrid or Manhattan.

  23. I would just like to thank FM for providing this space for discussions of very important issues, including Afghanistan. I wonder how many of the people commenting have any on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan.

    I cannot claim to be an expert as I don’t speak Dari or Pashto/Pakhto and haven’t made extensive studies of Afghan history, but I have visited Afghanistan 4 times, once in 1972 when the king was still there, and 3 times with mujahideen fighting the Soviets in the mid-1980s. I have also spent some time in northern Pakistan and the North West Frontier Province.

    I noticed that foreign intervention – especially military – has radicalized the Afghans very much. Also, I think the influence of Saudi Islamist teachings and money has been nefarious (but, of course, the Saudis are such excellent allies of the US…). I fully agree with FM and others that there is no point in keeping US and Allied fighting forces in the country because they cannot do enough good to justify the enormous costs.

  24. Joshua Foust provides some context for his warnings — amazing, in an odd sort of way

    Joshua Foust comments on a thread at Abu Muqawama (bold emphasis added):

    Just so your readers are clear, and as Finel perhaps could consider, I don’t really specifically say that stability in South Asia automatically justifies the war in Afghanistan. I am merely positing that strategic argument as part of a broader series on making (or breaking, as it may be) the case for Afghanistan. Frankly, the more I see the strategic incoherence coming out of the Obama Administration, and the snippets we’ve been able to glean from the classified McChrystal report, I’m no longer sure it’s a worthwhile case to make.

    That’s really weak. He certainly implies it strongly enough. {snipped}

  25. FM replies: And our “rational” motives for Afghanistan? (Please don’t mention the pipe-stan nonsense).

    there goes my number one reply.

    seriously though, i think the ‘rational’ motive was political self interest on the part of the previous administration, and mostly motivated by domestic politics. we had just been hit bad and no president could afford to look like he wasn’t doing enough(take a look at Katrina, which is the event that i think broke the Bush administration, and it was the belief that Bush and FEMA didn’t do enough that ruined him), and we had credible evidence that bin laden was in Afghanistan, so we went to war to prove that we were fighting the terrorists.

    that, i think, is more speculation on my part, im sure on some level someone probably guessed that we might have the ability to positively influence Iran and Pakistan and spread American interests by having a functional democracy in South Asia. of course this all turned out to be misinformed crap, but i am confident that there were at least good sounding reasons for going to war, even if they never achieved something we’d deem ‘good’ or ‘justifiable.’

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