What You Should Think About the War in Afghanistan

December 19, 2007

“A tilted load will not reach its destination.”

–Afghani proverb

When an opportunistic local leader seized the goods from a trade mission dispatched by Genghis Khan, world history would undergo some major changes. Reaching toward the West in the hopes of fair trade, Mongolian envoys were not merely thwarted but also insulted by aristocrats from the Kara-Khitan Khanate, a political entity that overlapped modern day Afghanistan. Treasures were confiscated and beards were forcibly shaved. The Mongolians’ violent response would raze cities and shatter empires, yet it would also facilitate commerce and cultural exchange between Western Europe and the Far East.

When a terrorist organization with ties to the government of Afghanistan launched an effective attack against a powerful nation far off to the west, some parallels would follow. An unstoppable military force moved into the region, generating an enormous body count that few would have predicted. Yet leaders of that terrorist organization were among those few.

The Global War on Terror was no cunning application of force unanticipated by Al Qaeda. Public statements made by various terrorist leaders foretold of American belligerence that would spread violence across the globe, generating legions of widowers and orphans consumed by the desire to strike back. There is little prospect of war in Saudi Arabia, and cooler heads may yet prevail in the determination of America’s Iran policy. Yet broadly speaking, it seems the only people not surprised by the scope of violent response from the United States were leaders of the U.S. government and leaders of Al Qaeda.

Declaring a global war on an abstract concept was a horrible idea that inevitably gave rise to horrible policy. Yet not every aspect of the American response played into Osama bin Laden’s hand. The prewar regime in Afghanistan could not be permitted to stand. This was not because they were destroying ancient wonders or enforcing barbaric laws. The legitimate imperative was a function of the Taliban’s refusal to cooperate in essential counterterrorist operations.

It could be argued that the American approach to seeking that cooperation was so dictatorial and insulting that immediate cooperation would constitute being bullied. Yet the Al Qaeda threat was real, and effectively neutralizing it would have served American national security as well as America’s national lust for blood. It is hard to deny the disastrous nature of doing so much more to focus on the satisfaction of that bloodlust and so much less to advance an effective security agenda. Yet it is also hard to deny that the pursuit of regime change in Afghanistan was an essential component of any credible American security agenda.

Beyond having some justification, it seems that the initial campaign in Afghanistan benefited from some forethought. Rather than sweep in with overwhelming force and impose martial law throughout the territory, Western invaders formed alliances with indigenous factions already uneasy with Taliban rule. Joined by soldiers from many other nations, American military personnel provided decisive support to these indigenous factions. Yet it would be Afghani fighters on the front lines of the greatest battles against the Taliban. Thus the military victories were much more than triumphs of foreign powers — they were also triumphs in a genuine liberation of Afghanistan.

Obviously this is a sharp contrast from Iraq. It is not the only one. While few other nations were eager to support the American invasion of Iraq, successful regime change in Afghanistan was viewed as a worthwhile goal from almost every part of the globe. Even so, America’s leadership role has always remained clear. NATO’s function coordinating military operations in Afghanistan influences that, but even more influential is the historic place of the United States in all of this.

Alas, American leadership in Afghanistan means that America’s present political leadership has the final say in terms of occupation activities. This is problematic on multiple levels. At the foundation is the sheer simple-mindedness and unrealistic idealism evident in White House work product up to this point in the 21st century. To hear Richard Perle reflecting on the commerce at a Kabul street market, one would think haggling over the price of toothpaste was prohibited under Taliban rule. Much of American foreign policy seems to be driven by the foolish belief that all problems around the world are caused by a lack of capitalism and can be solved by the spread of it.

Making matters worse is the fact that whatever brainpower is available for shaping American foreign policy is largely consumed by the situation in Iraq. Rushing to do battle with a fabricated threat is never good for the outcome of ongoing conflict with a real threat. If national attention had not been so profoundly misdirected, how would things be different? Would there be such severe compromises when it comes to personnel and equipment deployed in the hunt for bin Laden? Would a policy of killing up to thirty innocent Afghanis per Taliban or Al Qaeda suspect targeted by an air strike have gone unquestioned for so long for so long?

The challenge the world faced after discovering just how potent a terrorist attack can be was not an easy one. Had it been the sort of challenge that could be overcome with raw firepower or astronomical spending, then it would have been easy from an American perspective. Instead it was, and remains, a challenge that requires sophisticated, sometimes even delicate, action. Technocratic pragmatism, not fuzzy jingoism, sheds light on the best possible policies to guide this action.

Fortunately, the way Afghanistan will be left after foreign military occupation ceases remains an open question. Reliance on indigenous forces in the beginning struck a tone that continues to resound pleasingly in the ears of many Afghani people. Insofar as the Taliban were ever popular, it was because they were linked to the insurgency that drove out Soviet invaders. The greater freedom of democratic self-governance remains appealing to many. Yet every instance of overkill in counterterrorist operations, every instance of Western rhetoric clashing with evident facts, every instance of U.S. officials applying pressure to Hamid Karzai’s regime — these undermine the prospect of a future in which most of Afghanistan is committed to secular self-rule.

When speaking out against The Global War on Terror, it is important to remember that it is a rhetorical device to legitimize some horrible security policy by lumping those measures in with sound security policy. It is not entirely stupid. Democratizing Afghanistan was, and remains, sound security policy. The approach taken was not perfect, but it was also not the demented imperialist approach pursued in Iraq.

Should the call for political change effectively dismantle the useless and counterproductive elements of existing counterterrorism policy, it is vital that it should not go further and also dismantle useful counterterrorism measures. International cooperation has already become essential to national as well as global security. Given some positive turns, Afghanistan could continue to be a nation that will cooperate readily with the United States long after our armies withdraw from their lands.