August 06, 2009


No sooner had I finished writing the below blog post on U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the risks of our counterinsurgency strategy than I read Andrew Bacevich's most recent essay in Commonweal.

What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention? In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked. Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed—much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. As then, so today, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

I'm sorry, I like Andrew Bacevich very much, but this is simply and demonstrably false. Plenty of us in Washington have in fact been having a very sober-minded discussion about U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the limits of our new counterinsurgency doctrine. To suggest otherwise reveals ignorance of the discourse here. For the second time this morning, I give you Steve Biddle (of that wild-eyed anti-establishment fringe group, "The Council on Foreign Relations") in the most recent American Interest:

Managing this war will pose difficult problems both in Afghanistan and here at home. The strategic case for waging war is stronger than that for disengaging, but not by much: The war is a close call on the merits. The stakes for the United States are largely indirect; it will be an expensive war to wage; like most wars, its outcome is uncertain; even success is unlikely to yield a modern, prosperous Switzerland of the Hindu Kush; and as a counterinsurgency campaign its conduct is likely to increase losses and violence in the short term in exchange for a chance at stability in the longer term.


But failure is not inevitable. The U.S. military is now a far more capable counterinsurgency force than the Soviets who lost to the mujaheddin in the 1980s; the Obama Administration is committed to reforming a corrupt government in Kabul that the Bush Administration mostly accepted; and perhaps most important, the United States has the advantage of a deeply flawed enemy in the Taliban. The stakes, moreover, are important even though indirect: Failure could have grave consequences for the United States.


On balance, then, reinforcement is a better bet than withdrawal. But neither option is unassailable, and if presented with all costs and benefits appended, neither looks very appealing—and that will make for very contentious politics in the United States.


A war effort that is costly, risky and worth waging—but only barely so—will be hard to sustain politically; it would be just as hard to end. ...


The United States has two primary national interests in this conflict: that Afghanistan never again become a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan. Neither interest can be dismissed, but both have limits as casus belli.

Now does that read like a man who has not carefully asked the questions Bacevich is asking?

I think one of the things that annoys Bacevich is that some of us have moved on to strategic and operational concerns after reaching different political conclusions than his own. It's not that we have not asked or have failed to consider the questions Bacevich asks. We've just asked them and then arrived at different answers. I have all the respect and admiration in the world for Bacevich's call for us to live within our means and to not get involved with costly misadventures like the one in Iraq. (I invited him to Washington, in fact, to speak on our Afghanistan panel at CNAS because I think his voice is one that needs to be heard.) But the two of us have simply reached different conclusions on Afghanistan, and I for one am sick of this argument that just because some of us are now working on operational concerns, we have somehow failed to ask the questions of policy Bacevich is asking. It's a little condescending, or at the very least reveals an ignorance of the debates and discussion actually taking place.