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Weekly Commentary — Eight Years In

2009 October 19
by rahul

It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that in the past two months the old reflexive notion that Afghanistan was the unquestionable good war has disintegrated. There had been growing criticism around the margins, but it was only late this summer that a full-fledged public debate erupted. It is undoubtedly a testament to the great virtues of our open democratic society, with its free and active political discussion, that such a debate has broken out a mere eight years into the war.

It is unfortunately something of a surreal debate. The battle lines are drawn between those who believe we must help the Afghans, sacrifice for them, and build them a modern state in order to assure our own security and those who say we should let the Afghans go hang because they are not very relevant to our security.

Stanley McChrystal brought the simmering debate to a boil with his strenuous advocacy of a profound reorientation away from killing insurgents toward “protecting” Afghans and toward serious restrictions on U.S. military rules of engagement, together with a serious emphasis on state-building and the provision of security and other government services. For a number of military people who had already been extremely suspicious of the turn toward what they call the “counterinsurgency” approach, this was the last straw; either the proper role or the capabilities of the American soldier were being dramatically misconceived, with the result that the United States would be drawn further into a Vietnam-like quagmire.

This only intensified with McChrystal’s call for an additional 40,000 troops to be sent, which would bring the U.S. contingent to 108,000 and the total international forces to near 150,000.

The other side ranges from status-quo centrists like Joe Biden, who wants to keep the number at 68,000 but step up drone strikes and anti-insurgent Special Forces raids, to people like George Will at the margins who want to withdraw ground forces entirely but continue to administer death from above.

The debate has distressingly little to do with the good of the Afghan people, although it is constantly used as a rhetorical device, especially by the McChrystal side. For those who take it seriously, it might be a good idea to evaluate the effect of the last eight years on the wellbeing of Afghans.

As far as I am able to determine, the only thing in the plus column, besides the odd highway and school, is the end of official, aboveground Taliban rule over the bulk of the country. This is not a small achievement; it’s very different from the case of Iraq, because it’s quite possible that the government/anarchy that replaced Saddam’s government was actually worse for the people. In the case of Afghanistan, that’s not true; the Taliban provided very few of the services of a state, other than public order, and their restrictions on people’s lives were much more far-reaching.

Still, that has to be balanced against perhaps 10,000 civilians directly killed and 10 or 15,000 indirectly killed through the cutoff of aid during the 2001 war and 25-30,000 fighters killed. No one has good estimates of these numbers and there is no Les Roberts-style survey of Afghan households that I know of, but these can’t be too far off. Say, 50,000 Afghans are dead because of this war, and close to 1500 members of the international force, including almost 900 Americans.

I don’t know how to weigh those considerations against each other, but what is clear is that the negatives are steadily increasing. The Taliban is more powerful now than at any time since late 2001. How many more will have to be killed to prop up the weak, corrupt government installed by the United States? And will it be worth the price?

Those who favor a full-on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan justify it with reference to Iraq. The “surge” saved Iraq, and maybe something like it can save Afghanistan.

As military men and as proponents of good Western-style technocratic thinking, they are very poorly equipped to understand the central point of the Iraq counterinsurgency: the secret of America’s success was its failure. Many of them might well concede that if they had waged a brutal campaign and killed 500,000 to 1 million people, they would probably have broken the back of any insurgency this side of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front. Well, the fact that all of those people died, and the bulk of them not at the hands of the United States but in internecine warfare, just made it easier.

A similar failure may well be the prerequisite to “success” in Afghanistan. But don’t expect to hear this point of view on CNN.

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