The fact that Americans are even discussing the capacity and political will of the government of Afghanistan shows how far we have strayed from our original objectives. The October 2001 invasion was to punish al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime that harbored them. That narrow mission has since morphed into improving governance, fighting corruption, and building infrastructure. Underpinning U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is the belief that remaining will keep America safe, despite evidence to the contrary. For example, a 2004 Pentagon Task Force that reviewed the Bush administration’s anti‐terrorism efforts found that the underlying sources of threats to American interests were America’s direct intervention in the Muslim world. This was the same task force that reported: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” Reminder: That was Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.
But when some people in Washington hear that nation‐building in Afghanistan is not a precondition to making America safer, or that prolonging our presence undermines America’s security, the argument for remaining then shifts to preserving the security and human rights of the people of Afghanistan. While I too would endorse preserving the human rights of the Afghan people, this line of reasoning invites certain questions: how many Afghans will be killed to save one Afghan life? How long should America stay until it sees progress? And what if some Afghans do not want the protection of western troops or the central government we keep afloat?
Of course, the same people who argue for preserving the security and human rights of the people of Afghanistan overlook certain contradictions. For instance, America’s commitment to maintaining forward basing rights in countries like Uzbekistan puts America in the position of appearing to side with states that repress its own people. And, as my Cato Institute colleague Chris Preble says here on a recent bloggingheads.tv appearance, the rationale for intervening in Afghanistan was not the Taliban’s human rights abuses, which we were well aware of in the late 1990s. Rather, the rational was for bringing al Qaeda to justice. Similarly in Iraq, the central rationale was not that Saddam Hussein did horrible things to his people. Only later — after several years of mission creep — did U.S. policymakers shift the goalposts of the mission to include moral considerations.
As we honor our veteran’s this week with Armistice Day, we should be asking yet another important question regarding the preservation of human rights abroad: should U.S. soldiers be asked to fight and die for issues not directly related to U.S. national security?
In a recent article that appeared in the Times of London: