Why Are We In Afghanistan?

Don't ask Stephen Biddle – or, on second thought, please do ask him.

by , August 14, 2009

Why are we fighting in Afghanistan? Well, it’s hard to say, because the rationale for our intervention keeps shifting: first it was to banish al-Qaeda from the region – although, of course, Osama bin Laden & Co. haven’t been seen in those parts since 2001, when we fumbled an attempt to corner them in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Now, however, our war aims seem to have changed: according to Stephen Biddle, a civilian advisor to the commander of US troops at the Afghan front, Gen. Stanley McChyrstal, it’s to keep Pakistan in line, prevent Islamabad from becoming a terrorist “haven” – and keep that country’s nukes out of al-Qaeda’s hands.  

Such a nightmare scenario isn’t very likely, says Biddle in an essay published in The American Interest, and the rationale for the war itself is “a close call,” although, he avers, “still worth it.” But why and how is it worth it – and, more importantly, to whom is it worth it? 

We’ll get to that later, but first let’s examine Biddle’s argument in favor of the Afghan war – if, indeed, it can be called an argument in favor at all. Because he’s unusually honest about the real stakes involved, and on account of his position as an advisor to McChrystal, what he has to say is fascinating from the perspective of an opponent of US  intervention.  

Biddle dispenses with the “we must deny al-Qaeda a safe haven” argument – raised repeatedly by President Obama – with admirable swiftness. Yes, he avers, we must make sure al-Qaeda doesn’t reassert its presence in Afghanistan, 

“But the intrinsic importance of doing so is no greater than that of denying sanctuary in many other potential havens—and probably smaller than many. We clearly cannot afford to wage protracted warfare with multiple brigades of American ground forces simply to deny al-Qaeda access to every possible safe haven. We would run out of brigades long before bin Laden ran out of prospective sanctuaries.” 

Indeed, if we take the logic of the “no safe haven” doctrine to its ultimate conclusion, then we must be willing to occupy the entire world – anywhere al-Qaeda could possibly find a “safe haven.” Something tells me such a strategy isn’t going to be all that workable – although I’m glad no one suggested it to the Bush administration, because they would probably have jumped at the chance to implement it. 

No, says Biddle, the real reason we must invade and occupy Afghanistan for the next forty years or so is because of … Pakistan! As he puts it: 

“The more important U.S. interest is indirect: to prevent chaos in Afghanistan from destabilizing Pakistan. With a population of 173 million (five times Afghanistan’s), a GDP of more than $160 billion (more than ten times Afghanistan’s) and a functional nuclear arsenal of perhaps twenty to fifty warheads, Pakistan is a much more dangerous prospective state sanctuary for al-Qaeda.  

“Furthermore, the likelihood of government collapse in Pakistan, which would enable the establishment of such a sanctuary, may be in the same ballpark as Afghanistan, at least in the medium to long term. Pakistan is already at war with internal Islamist insurgents allied to al-Qaeda, and that war is not going well. Should the Pakistani insurgency succeed in collapsing the state or even just in toppling the current civilian government, the risk of nuclear weapons falling into al-Qaeda’s hands would rise sharply. “ 

Oh, but wait: 

“The United States is too unpopular with the Pakistani public to have any meaningful prospect of deploying major ground forces there to assist the government in counterinsurgency. U.S. air strikes can harass insurgents and terrorists within Pakistan, but the inevitable collateral damage arouses harsh public opposition that could itself threaten the weak government’s stability. U.S. aid is easily (and routinely) diverted to purposes other than countering Islamist insurgents, such as the maintenance of military counterweights to India, graft and patronage, or even support for Islamist groups seen by Pakistani authorities as potential allies against India. U.S. assistance to Pakistan can—and should—be made conditional on progress in countering insurgents, but if these conditions are too harsh, Pakistan might reject the terms, thus removing our leverage in the process. Demanding conditions that the Pakistani government ultimately accepts but cannot reasonably fulfill only sets the stage for recrimination and misunderstanding.” 

Okay, let’s see if I get this straight: the real problem is Pakistan, not Afghanistan. However, we can’t go into Pakistan because we’re hated there, and the very act of intervening could and would give al-Qaeda the kind of momentum it needs to overthrow the Pakistani government. And we can’t even pressure the Pakistanis to crack down on the Islamists who may be sympathetic to al-Qaeda, because they can’t do it, and our insisting on it would only lead to hard feelings and “misunderstanding.”  

Okay, I get it. So, please tell me: why are we in Afghanistan?  

Well, I was just getting to that, if you’ll be patient. According to Biddle,  

“This is the single greatest U.S. interest in Afghanistan: to prevent it from aggravating Pakistan’s internal problems and magnifying the danger of an al-Qaeda nuclear-armed sanctuary there.” 

Oh, but never mind that, because, you see, 

“Afghanistan’s influence over Pakistan’s future is important, but it is also incomplete and indirect. A Taliban Afghanistan would make a Pakistani collapse more likely, but it would not guarantee it. Nor does success in Afghanistan guarantee success in Pakistan: There is a chance that we could struggle our way to stability in Afghanistan at great cost and sacrifice, only to see Pakistan collapse anyway under the weight of its own elite misjudgments and deep internal divisions.” 

So, where does this leave us? On the one hand, we have to be in Afghanistan because of our concern for Pakistan’s security – but the latter could disintegrate in any event, and, indeed, it could do so in large part due to our efforts.  

Hmmmmm. A real conundrum here. So what’s left of the rationale for the Afghan war? 

Well, not a lot. We are left to imagine a chain reaction of events, including the downfall of the Karzai government and its replacement with the Taliban, the downfall of the secular government in Islamabad and its replacement by some sort of Islamist regime sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and, finally, the capture of Pakistan’s nukes by Al  Qaeda, aided and abetted by the Taliban and the newly-installed Islamists – a scenario Biddle admits is not likely. Nevertheless,  

“During the Cold War, the United States devoted vast resources to diminishing an already-small risk that the USSR would launch a nuclear attack on America. Today, the odds of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan yielding an al-Qaeda nuclear weapon next door in Pakistan may be relatively low, but the low risk of a grave result has been judged intolerable in the past and perhaps ought to be again. On balance, the gravity of the risks involved in withdrawal narrowly make a renewed effort in Afghanistan the least-bad option we have.” 

Actually, the chances of a nuclear first strike by the Russians were a lot higher than is the highly unlikely prospect of a nuclear-armed al-Qaeda nuking New York from some Central Asian launching pad — first ,because al-Qaeda has yet to acquire nukes, and secondly because Pakistan’s nukes are well-guarded. Thirdly, and most importantly, Biddle’s analysis of the risks of inaction is seriously flawed by his one-sided emphasis on the alleged “gravity” of a given risk.  

It would certainly pose a grave danger to the planet earth if we were invaded by a race of intelligent reptiles from Regulus: on the gravity scale I would give it a ten. Yet the likelihood of such an event is practically zero, and therefore expending resources on prevention would be sheer waste. There are other, far more probable threats lurking on the horizon. Such as the threat of al-Qaeda obtaining nuclear materials from, say, Russian organized crime gangs, who looted nuclear facilities in the last days of the Soviet regime, and took advantage of the chaos to spirit away the makings of a very dirty bomb. If al-Qaeda was about to take control of Pakistan, and its nukes, we would have plenty of warning: not so with the deployment of a dirty nuke, the elements of which have been assembled in secret and put in position just as the hijackers were put in position to do what they did on 9/11. This is the real threat, emanating not from any state actors but from a stateless, transnational insurgency that operates outside the parameters of warfare as we have known it. Rather than fighting on the battlefield, they burrow beneath it and emerge like Myrmidons from the very soil, our own soil, to wreak destruction on a mass scale.

Andrew Bacevich made the same point in a recent essay for Commonweal, arguing that those who say “the fight in Afghanistan is essential to keeping America safe” overlook  

“The primary reason why the 9/11 conspiracy succeeded: federal, state, and local agencies responsible for basic security fell down on the job, failing to install even minimally adequate security measures in the nation’s airports. The national-security apparatus wasn’t paying attention—indeed, it ignored or downplayed all sorts of warning signs, not least of all Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States. … So we let ourselves get sucker-punched. Averting a recurrence of that awful day does not require the semipermanent occupation and pacification of distant countries like Afghanistan. Rather, it requires that the United States erect and maintain robust defenses.” 

The campaign mantra of the Obama-ites was that the Iraq war was a diversion: the real battle against al-Qaeda, declared candidate Obama, needs to be fought in Afghanistan. The reality is that both Iraq and Afghanistan are diversions away from the looming threat posed by a terrorist group that has shown it can penetrate our defenses and strike the continental United States, swiftly and without warning. 

Biddle’s essay, meant as a defense of military efforts in the region, is woefully unconvincing because the author is himself undecided when it comes to answering the question posed in his title: “Is It Worth It?” Summarizing the problems – and problematic contingencies – surrounding the Afghan campaign, Biddle writes: “taking all this into account, advocates for withdrawal from Afghanistan certainly have a case.”  

Wading through the ambiguities of Biddle’s”on the one hand this, on the other hand that” case for invading and occupying Afghanistan for the next few decades – at enormous cost, both in lives and American tax dollars – one has to ask: is this all there is? Even the top advisor to the commander of our Afghan forces is hard-pressed to come up with a convincing rationale for a war guaranteed to be protracted, costly, and highly uncertain as to its ultimate outcome. No wonder the American people are turning against it.  

This business about al-Qaeda somehow taking control of Pakistan’s nukes is a fantasy, but if fear of a nuclear-armed Osama bin Laden is going to lead us into invading and occupying entire countries, then neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan qualify as the prime candidate. The chances of al-Qaeda acquiring a nuke from somewhere in the former Soviet Union – where loose nukes are floating around like autumn leaves in a forest – are far greater than this rather far-fetched Pakistan-goes-Islamist scenario. So why don’t we invade one of those former Soviet republics, say, Kazakhstan, where they might possibly pick up “lost” nukes from some criminal gang?  

Well, I’d better stop there – after all, I don’t want to give the Obama-ites any ideas, now do I?  

So, let’s get back to our original question: how, why, and to whom is the Afghan war “worth it”?  

A good deal of Biddle’s essay is concerned with the politics of the conflict and its impact on the domestic scene, particularly its reception in the court of US public opinion. According to him, Obama has already “put his stamp on” the conflict, he owns it, and so must defend it from Republican attack and popular discontent. It is a war, he says, that “skirts the margins of being worthwhile,” and the great danger is that a “bipartisan antiwar coalition” will arise as casualties mount. On the other hand, we are told, withdrawal poses dangers, too: 

“Politically, it would commit the Administration to a policy now supported by only 17 percent of the electorate. It would play into the traditional Republican narrative of Democratic weakness on defense, facilitate widespread if ill-founded Republican accusations of the Administration’s leftist radicalism, and risk alienating moderate Democrats in battleground districts whose support the President will need on other issues. However bad the news may look if the United States fights on, withdrawal would probably mean a Karzai collapse and a Taliban victory, an outcome that would flood American TV screens with nightmarish imagery.” 

What’s at stake isn’t just the national interest – it’s “the Democratic Party’s future—not to mention the nation’s.” That’s why thousands more must die, and billions must be wasted.In short, it’s all about politics – but not the politics of change. It’s the politics of “stay the course,” Obama-style. There’s the answer to the question that titles today’s column. 

Given this rationale for the Afghan war, I’d like to see the following carved on the tombstone of each and every victim of this war: “He/she died for the future of the Democratic party.” 

NOTES IN THE MARGIN 

As tired as I am after writing close to 2,000 words, I’m going to include in this “Notes in the Margin” a hectoring, overwrought and over-long fundraising appeal. Just because it’ll make me feel better.  

Yeah, sure, yesterday brought in double what we’d been averaging – but I fear that’s because I allowed a photo of me being dragged into an Emergency Room, half-unconscious, to be put on the front page. I trust, however, that had nothing to do with it. In any case, yesterday was encouraging, but not, I hope, a one-time phenomenon, because we are very far from being out of danger – the danger of drastically downgrading or even closing down the site..  

Look, we really are in a major financial crisis – I hear one of our more essential employees volunteered to not take a salary this week so the others could be paid out of our rapidly-dwindling bank account. A wonderful gesture by an exceptionally dedicated individual, one who will surely go down in the history of our movement as a hero, martyr, and saint. Future generations of peacemakers will sing his praises – but in the meantime, he’s out of a salary, and our other creditors are not quite so forgiving.  

See, I told you it would be overwrought and hectoring, so at the risk of it being overlong, I’ll bring this bleg to an abrupt end, except to say: 

Won’t you please help?

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