June 24, 2011
The Real Afghanistan Problem

Robert Kagan, a neocon who never met a war he didn’t like, has recently written a blogpost criticizing Obama’s new Afghanistan policy on the grounds that the military leadership universally opposes the plan to pull troops out of Afghanistan, even though they say they don’t.

Now as it happens I imagine Kagan’s right about military opinion of Obama’s plans: military leaders prefer to win wars rather than lose or tie them, and given a choice between more resources to get the job done and less resources to get the job done, almost everyone, military or not, prefers more resources.

Kagan’s critique is resonating among Obama critics.  The argument is that withdrawing forces from Afghanistan will “jeopardize” or otherwise harm our “progress” there. If we just keep fighting, the argument goes, we will stabilize Afghanistan and create a stable government there, one that will keep the country from being used as a base for al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

Unfortunately, this argument is folly. It’s a classic case of throwing good money after bad.

The reasons are many, but I want to focus on two. First, no one—and I mean no one—has ever “taken” Afghanistan. It has never had a stable government or an integrated civil society such that its citizens felt loyalty to a central political entity and cooperated in resisting anti-state forces in the country. Instead, Afghanistan always has been a riven, tribal society that exists only because international law requires that some political body be described as holding sovereignty within the geographic region it has collectively labeled “Afghanistan.”

Accordingly, the notion that we are building an “Afghanistan” that is a state in a modern sense of the word is ridiculous. The notion that keeping 33,000 troops there for an extra “fighting season” will lead to victory is absurd.

Second, assuming we magically “win” in Afghanistan, what, exactly do we “get” for it? Afghanistan has no resources we wish to trade for or that need US companies to extract. (If it has any resources, as a report once suggested, trust me: they’ll go to the Chinese next door.) It is not centrally located to things that make a meaningful difference to the United States. Even if the US would like to see a pipeline go through Afghanistan, it can hardly be more expensive to build it across a different route than it is to “win” in Afghanistan.

Put another way, no one in the United States particularly cared about Afghanistan before 9/11, and it is not clear that absent 9/11 we’d have felt a profound need to “fix” Afghanistan. There are other ways to prevent Afghanistan being used as a base for terrorism than investing large numbers of lives and vast amounts of money in making “Afghanistan” into a real country.

So Robert Kagan may well be right in that the military opposes Obama’s decision. But so what? All of us have been in a fight and kept fighting well past the point the fight made any sense—we just wanted to win. That’s where the United States finds itself today. We care about winning because we care about winning.

But believe me: just as no one today particularly cares that the United States lost the war in Vietnam (other than our ritual invocations of that war for political purposes), and few people in the US perceive their lives to be materially worse or in greater peril because Vietnam is (supposedly) Communist, it will be much the same with Afghanistan when we wise up and decide to call it a win and come home.

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    There is much here I agree with and much I disagree with. I am convinced that for the U.S. as well as Afghanistan (and...
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