Recently, the Center for American Progress published “Seven Reasons Why We Need to Engage in Afghanistan.” Sounding eerily like a Neocon Brain Trust from the Bush era, it was an argument defending the president’s policy of escalation in and prolonged occupation of Afghanistan.
The argument came in anticipation of Obama’s first international tour as president of the United States. He appealed to the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for greater commitment to the American Afghan adventure and while the hosts made pleasant sounds in appreciation of our president’s dilemma, their commitments were little more than those they gave the Bush administration.
Could it be the Europeans have learned something the Americans are still struggling with: that Afghanistan is a hopeless mission, a money pit, a sinking hole that will inevitably drag down anyone who becomes ensnared in its tangled web?
To state the obvious: We have been ensnared in the Afghan web for seven and a half years. We have lost over eleven hundred coalition soldiers, including 674 Americans at last count. While estimates of civilian casualties, Taliban casualties and Al Qaeda casualties are impossible to nail down, it is safe to say tens of thousands have lost their lives as a direct result of the invasion and occupation and tens of thousands more have been seriously wounded.
At a time when America is confronting a worldwide recession that could become a global depression if not effectively addressed, the cost of the Afghan portion of the war on terror in September 2008 was estimated at $120 billion by the Congressional Budget Office. The same source estimates that the combined cost of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars will reach $2.4 trillion over the next decade.
These are the costs of war as represented by numbers on a tally sheet. They do not begin to reveal the human costs. They do not reveal the terror in the hearts of common people living with war on a daily basis. They do not reveal the deep sense of loss and the concomitant vows of revenge they inspire against those they believe are responsible for this carnage, waste and destruction. After years of occupation, they do not account for the change in the hearts and minds of a long-suffering people.
The Center for American Progress does not address the costs of war. Instead, it focuses on potential consequences of withdrawal. They have framed the debate on their terms. They have planted the staff firmly on pro-war grounds and yet their argument fails to hold water.
Reason 1: The Al Qaeda Threat
The Center declares that AQ and its “affiliates” have regained a strategic safe haven in Pakistan and Afghanistan but of course that may depend on how you define “affiliates.” That is the trouble with a nebulous enemy. That is how wars are expanded without the approval of congress. It is the stuff of war propaganda to conflate the original enemy with those who share some common trait. That is how the war in Vietnam became the war in Southeast Asia. That is how Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine came to be targets in the war on terror campaign.
It is time to end this kind of smokescreen politics. Those who engage in the practice have tipped their hand; their intent is to obscure the truth, not to reveal it. Whatever the AQ threat is it is by no means the pre-eminent threat of our troubled times. Whatever the threat, common sense tells us and unbiased intelligence confirms that our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased it exponentially and our withdrawal would do more to minimize the threat than any military action our generals can devise.
Reason 2: A failed Afghanistan is a threat to Pakistan
The Center’s reasoning conveniently ignores the obvious fact that the Afghan war and occupation are largely responsible for the deterioration of security in Pakistan. This was a predictable outcome yet the White House warlords in the Bush administration ignored it. As the Soviets learned before us, a foreign occupation provides stimulus to violent extremism and every missile, bomb or drone attack, killing innocent civilians and enemies alike with seeming impunity, further fuels the fires of hatred.
As a nuclear power, Pakistan is a critically important nation but escalating the war in Afghanistan to support a weak Pakistani government is like injecting malignant cells into a cancer patient. The war is the disease; it is not the cure.
Reason 3: Regional Stability
They argue that a power vacuum in the wake of an American withdrawal, like that following the Soviet occupation, would empower local warlords and holy warriors, leading to regional destabilization. Here is a creative rewriting of history. First, the warlords of Afghanistan predate the Soviet occupation by centuries. Second, we implanted, financed and armed the Mujahideen (including AQ and Osama bin Laden) and our actions over the last seven and a half years have only buttressed their influence. Third, after the Soviet withdrawal the Taliban imposed order and stability with quiet support from its neighbors and the United States. We disrupted that stability with our actions and we continue to be the most destabilizing force in the region today.
Reason 4: The Rise of the Taliban
Yes, the Taliban is resurgent and yes, its imposition of fundamentalist Islamic law is inhumane but recall that the Taliban was allowed to seize power with our blessings before this war precisely for the reason cited above: regional stability. It is important to understand that the Taliban is indigenous and we are not. Radical Islam cannot be defeated by military means. One of the most encouraging developments in President Obama’s statements on the Afghan War is that when he speaks of the enemy he speaks of Al Qaeda – not the Taliban. Engaging the Taliban – particularly the more moderate elements – in diplomacy is far more promising than continuing the war.
Reason 5: Increased opium production finances terrorism and crime
This is not a rational reason for continuing the war and occupation. Rather, it is an argument for handing the government over to the oppressive government of the Taliban – the only Afghan government that has been successful in reducing that nation’s reliance on opium.
Conflating the war on terror with the war on drugs may make sense as a war propaganda tool but it rings true in an unintended sense: Both are “wars” that cannot be won. A more enlightened world would legalize, regulate and control opium production but for that we will have to wait. Envisioning an Afghan government that will eradicate opium production and watch its people starve is simply a fantasy.
Reason 6: Afghanistan is critical to the advance of NATO
Respectfully, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has no rightful place outside its sphere of governance. The engagement of NATO in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, was an emotionally charged decision that many Europeans have come to regret. Advancing the cause of NATO should never be a cause for war and no nation (including Afghanistan) should ever be employed as a training ground for military coordination and operations.
Reason 7: Afghanistan is among the least developed nations in the world
Now here is a strange argument. It seems to say: The greater the challenge, the greater the victory. Should we also invade and occupy other poor nations? Should the poor nations of the world fill out their applications to be “liberated” by the wealthier nations of the world? Yes, Afghanistan is needy and will continue to need assistance for a very long time. Nevertheless, the best we can do for them now is to end the occupation and let them get on with their own lives, their development and their own government.
In their “Seven Reasons for War” the Center for American Progress sounds more and more like the Neocon Project for the New American Century. My great fear now is that these militaristic Neoliberals from the Clinton administration have formed a circle of influence surrounding our new president, locking out all voices of dissent. Absent from Obama’s foreign policy team are any real antiwar voices.
I fear that the Bush Doctrine was not buried in the last election as we hoped but rather is being refined with new language and new slogans but the same old arguments to continue the policies of war.
The Neocon warlords who sent us to war behind a policy of conquest and military domination belittled anyone who dared to suggest that the appropriate response to terrorism was police action. Politicians on both sides of the traditional divide cowered before them and joined the call to war. Yet a coordinated international police action, buffered by intelligence agencies and special forces, supported by international diplomacy, was precisely what was called for then and it is precisely what is called for now.
I hope the president awakens to what is happening around him or he may soon awaken to the realization that he has become America’s new War President. It is not a title to which any leader should aspire and it is certainly not one that is inevitable.
*“Seven Reasons Why We Need to Engage in Afghanistan” by the Center for American Progress, March 26, 2009 (www.americanprogress.org).
Image Courtesy of the DND