Bin Laden’s Death and the Debate over the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan

Osama Bin Laden’s death marks a significant achievement in the fight against al Qaeda. It also highlights the fact that our ostensible objective for continuing the war in Afghanistan has been achieved. Although some lawmakers have been quick to claim that bin Laden’s demise proves that our nation-building mission is showing signs of success, others recognize that this momentous achievement justifies scaling down our presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, rather than expansive counterinsurgency campaigns, targeted counterterrorism measures would suffice.

It is encouraging that Republican members of Congress are questioning the mission. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed his concern yesterday:

[Senator Lugar] said Afghanistan no longer holds the strategic importance to match Washington’s investment. He cited recent comments from senior national-security officials that terrorist strikes on America are more likely to be planned in places like Yemen.

Lugar raised concerns that U.S. policy on Afghanistan is focused more on building up its economic, political and security systems. “Such grand nation-building is beyond our powers,” he said bluntly.

Most poignantly, he summed up the problem as such:

With Al Qaeda largely displaced from the country, but franchised in other locations, Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal constraints.

These realities have neither shifted the GOP establishment’s talking points on defense, nor the Obama administration’s “stay-the-course” policy in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, this debate, especially among Republicans, is important. As my Cato colleague Ben Friedman has pointed out in original research, the Tea Party Republicans that swept into office last November may have good instincts, but have done little to shift the overarching debate about the efficacy of nation-building. Perhaps increased calls for rethinking the mission will have to come from senior GOP types like Lugar. As my other Cato colleague, Gene Healy, trenchantly notes, “There was always something odd about conservatives jumping from ‘they hate us because we’re free’ to ‘if we make them free, then they won’t hate us.”

Cato scholars have been making the case for de-escalation from Afghanistan for the past several years. Hopefully, more Republicans will recognize, as most libertarians already do, that it is inconsistent to espouse talk of fiscal responsibility and limited government at home while engaging in social engineering and nation-building abroad. More republicans should recognize that there is nothing conservative about wasting taxpayer dollars on a mission that weakens America economically and militarily. As Cato founder and president Ed Crane has argued, it’s time for the GOP leadership to return to its non-interventionist roots.

Since 9/11, America’s mission in Afghanistan has evolved dramatically. It’s gone from punishing al Qaeda and the Taliban to paving roads and building schools. To imagine that the U.S.-led coalition can create a functioning economy and establish civilian and military bureaucracies through some “government in a box” highlights the ignorance and arrogance of our central planners in Washington.

Let’s hope that the landmark death of Osama bin Laden brings a swift end to our ongoing investment and sacrifice.