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Weekly Commentary — The Good War

2009 July 20
by rahul

Escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the essential component of Barack Obama’s new, improved “war on terror.” Current plans are to ramp up to a presence of 70,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and diplomatic efforts to increase the size of the NATO force are constantly underway.

This new offensive comes at a time when the American public is sick of far-away countries, the spending of imaginary funds on helping poor, benighted Muslims, and even of the continued absence of American troops; somehow, many have convinced themselves that they care about this even when they have no friends or family in the armed forces. As a result, even this goodest of all good wars has minimal support; indeed, a USA Today poll earlier this year found 42% of Americans saying that the Afghanistan war was a mistake.

Although elite opinion is much more unified in support of Obama’s escalation, there are cracks in this facade as well. If nothing else, Stanley McChrystal’s repeated emphasis on the fact that a solution in Afghanistan will have to be political more than military is an indirect reflection of these cracks; by the time this had become the dominant theme in public remarks about Vietnam, everyone knew the United States was losing.

Thus the need for a new propaganda offensive. Peter Bergen’s widely-discussed essay “Winning the Good War” in the latest issue of the liberal Washington Monthly is a case in point.

It’s structured as a refutation of the argument that Afghanistan will be Obama’s Vietnam. First, he says, this is not a replay of the Soviets in Afghanistan — they were brutal and hamhanded, resistance was much more widespread, and there was a fairly important outside power aiding that resistance.

Second, he says, Afghanistan is actually far more governable than Iraq, and violence even now is lower. Also, Afghans support the presence of international forces, while Iraqis opposed it.

Third, Afghanistan has been a unified nation for longer than the United States, and Afghans have a strong sense of nationalism — for some reason, this augurs well for the occupation.

Fourth, it’s not like Vietnam because the NLF was much larger and better armed than the neo-Taliban is — see argument above.

Fifth, withdrawal can’t be the answer because we tried it before and the result was disaster.

And, finally, more troops will decrease civilian casualties, not increase them, because it will enable us to cut down on bombing raids.

Most of his facts are accurate and some of the arguments he tries to refute are really silly — if only I had a dime for every idiot column claiming that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires for 2500 years and that it will wreck the United States too.

It’s also true that poll results show a significant majority of Afghans in support of the presence of U.S. and NATO forces. And that Afghanistan is nothing like Vietnam.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see that Bergen is caught up in the same blindness as say Thomas Friedman in 2005 regarding Iraq — and untold liberal intellectuals in every counterinsurgency since the beginning of recorded history.

Here’s a different reading of some of the same facts. The fact that in a recent ABC poll, 63% of Afghan respondents supported the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan while only 8% supported that of the neo-Taliban is a welcome indication that the 8-year occupation has not yet done irreparable damage — and indicates an opportunity to move the policy in a very different direction than that of counterinsurgency.

That lack of irreparable damage does not mean that the United States has done much good — indeed, 63% thought the US had done a “fair” or “poor” job and a slight majority has an unfavorable opinion of the US.

Furthermore, 18% favored escalation with 44% opposing, and an overwhelming 77% said the use of air strikes was “unacceptable.” Hamid Karzai has also repeatedly gone on record opposing U.S. escalation and favoring attempts at a negotiated settlement.

Although there has been a flurry of stories about a new “kinder, gentler” approach in Afghanistan, the truth is that air strikes will remain a major component of the counterinsurgency and that whenever the Taliban is able to inflict significant casualties on American troops “force protection” will trump other considerations. The likelihood of doing further damage is great. The chance that some good will be done seems minuscule; I see in Washington neither the ability nor the political will to come up with and implement a strategy for a political solution.

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