From Good War to Bad Social Engineering

This article appeared in the March issue of Chronicles magazine.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan formore than eight years. That is longer than our involvement in both world wars combined. Yet the end of theconflict appears to be further away than ever. It is not evenclear what would constitute victory.

Afghanistan began as the “good war,” receiving nearunanimousbacking in the United States and similar supportin Europe. The objectives were clear: weaken or destroyAl Qaeda, which had attacked America; oust the Taliban,which had given Al Qaeda refuge; warn other regimes thatcooperating with terrorists would leave them out of power.

The United States quickly achieved all these objec​tives​.Al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. It is not certain thatOsama bin Laden is still alive; much of the organization’sleadership has been killed. Al Qaeda now appears to bemostly effective as an inspiration to other jihadist groups.Moreover, Afghanistan is largely irrelevant to Al Qaeda’soperations. National Security Advisor Jim Jones recently claimed that there are only 100 Al Qaeda operatives inAfghanistan and that they have “no bases, no ability tolaunch attacks on either us or our allies.” The underwearbomber, linked to Nigeria and Yemen, illustrates the limited relevance of Afghanistan to terrorism these days.

The United States also succeeded in driving the Talibanfrom power. Whatever happens in the future, Washington punished the regime that hosted Al Qaeda. Even ifthe Taliban returns to power in some provinces or in Kabul, many Taliban leaders appear less than well disposed toan organization that misused their hospitality and causedtheir ouster. Even a victorious Taliban is likely to be a chastened Taliban, hesitant to host terrorists seeking to strikeAmerica.

Finally, the United States has sent a very clear messageto any other regime tempted to aid anti‐​American terrorists: Do so at your peril. Washington might not have theknowledge, wisdom, or commitment to spread democracy, impose liberal values, and otherwise transform society,but we still can and will punish any government foolish enough to assist those who attack us.

Having met these objectives, Washington could havewithdrawn, demonstrating how (limited) military actioncan effectively combat terrorism. Such an outcome wouldhave yielded a more secure America, although not necessarily a more democratic Afghanistan.

The intervening eight years have not been cheap. Theconflict has consumed roughly 900 U.S. and 600 alliedlives and cost about $220 billion, with nearly another $100billion budgeted for this year alone, inflated by PresidentObama’s ongoing escalation. The Afghan people, too, havesuffered greatly, with tens of thousands of dead and injured civilians.

The return on this investment has been poor. Adm.Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says thesituation in Afghanistan is “deteriorating.” Taliban attackson allied forces are up; secure areas are down. The Afghan government exercises little control over most of thecountry. The most vibrant industry may be drugs, whichfund friends, including high government officials, and foesalike. Vote‐​rigging by President Hamid Karzai wreckedany pretension that we are promoting democracy.

So what now?

A narrow focus on counterterrorism would be nocakewalk, but it might be achievable at a reasonable cost.This approach would accept that Afghanistan is a tragicallyfractured land, poor and at war. The embarrassing Karzaigovernment could be accepted with equanimity. After all,if Mr. Ten Percent can be president of the far more important nation of Pakistan, Mr. Dubious Democracy can reignin Kabul.

The United States could look for a political accommodation, with some mixture of Taliban and local warlordswilling to deny Al Qaeda sanctuary. The bulk of Americanforces could be withdrawn over time. Should terrorists attempt to return to Afghanistan, use of Special Forces anddrones in combination with friendly local forces couldminimize their effectiveness.

Terrorism will never disappear, but focusing on counterterrorism might at least thwart future terrorist attacks.Said President Obama when he announced his Afghanpolicy, CCQ overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda…”

Still, nation‐​building seems to beckon U.S. policymakers. In March 2009, the President agreed to send another21,000 troops to Afghanistan, explaining, “For the Afghanpeople, a return to Taliban rule would condemn theircountry to brutal governance, international isolation, aparalyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rightsto the Afghan people — especially women and girls.”

A Taliban victory would be bad for the Afghan people,but so far America’s attempt to establish nirvana in Kabul,let alone the rest ofthe country, has fallen far short. MalalaiJoya, a woman oft‐​threatened by traditionalists for running for parliament, has complained, “Your governmentshave replaced the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban withanother fundamentalist regime of warlords.” But shoulddefeating the Taliban be Washington’s business?

While there are many reasons to sympathize with theAfghan people, humanitarian sentiments do not constituteour national interest. David Ignatius of the Washington Post criticized those who would adopt “a more selfishcounterterrorism strategy that drops the rebuilding part,“but it is easy to be generous with other people’s lives whenyou are fighting from your office chair in your ivory tower.The lives and wealth of Americans should not be sacrificedfor costly grand crusades irrelevant to American security.

Some believe that Washington needs to finish the jobit began in Afghanistan. Masuda Sultan of Women forAfghan Women argued, “We have a moral obligation tocontinue to follow through for Afghan women who haveput themselves at risk over the last eight years.”

Foreign intervention no doubt encourages other peoples to count on the U.S. government, often with costlyconsequences. However, that does not turn foreign socialengineering into a U.S. priority. There is a good argumentfor welcoming to America those who have risked theirlives on her behalf; Iraqi translators come to mind. Butthis is not the first time, unfortunately, that foreign peopleshave shared the unrealistic hopes of U.S. policymakers totransform impoverished, traditional, and war‐​ravaged societies into free and prosperous countries.

Finally, what of the means about which the President spoke? If fixing Afghanistan is America’s goal, is itpossible to achieve? And at what cost?

Here the President’s policy most obviously breaks down.Killing terrorists is easy compared to remaking societies.

Unfortunately, it appears that the administration hastaken the worst path possible. Instead of folding or going all in, it is attempting to stay in the game with a slightescalation. General McChrystal wanted at least 40,000additional troops; President Obama agreed to 30,000.Depending on how many the Europeans actually contribute — undoubtedly fewer than they have promised — theUnited States and her allies will have around 125,000personnel in Afghanistan, a country of 33 million peopie scattered among thousands of villages, many locatedin forbidding mountainous or otherwise desolate terrain.That is not nearly enough.

Traditional counterinsurgency doctrine indicates thatabout 660,000 troops are needed. The Soviets ultimatelydeployed 118,000 troops, too few to impose Moscow’s will.The NATO nations initially used 60,000 soldiers to garrison Bosnia — after all fighting had ceased in that muchsmaller and less populous land.

Despite all of that, could the Obama administration’spolicy somehow work? Most analysts who advocate anincreased effort in Afghanistan believe that we must startwith an effective regime in Kabul.

Rahm Emanuel spoke of creating “a credible Afghanpartner for this process that can provide the security andthe type of services that the Afghan people need:” FormerDefense Department official Mann Strmecki argued forestablishing “an effective and representative government“The Center for American Progress issued a report advocating “a national representative government that is able togovern, defend, and sustain itself.”

One cannot say, given the range of human experience,that such an objective is unachievable. However, the likelihood of success seems slim at best.

Afghanistan has often been called the “graveyard of empires” — a cliché, perhaps, but foreign powershave never successfully ruled the Afghan people. ‘Whileinternal conflict is not inevitable, any central governmentmust, like the mid‐​20th‐​century Afghan monarchy, understand and respect both the decentralized, traditionalnature of Afghan society and the sharp limits on its ownpower.

Intervention from outside, even by a power with greater understanding of and respect for local cultures thanthe United States, is inevitably more difficult. Afghanistan is made up of 20 often antagonistic ethnic groups.The dominant Pashtuns are divided into 50 tribes. Whilemany urban people seek modernity; many other Afghansremain hostile to outsiders, especially foreigners carryingguns. Three decades of war have profoundly afflicted Afghan society.

Some advocates of war appear to believe that what isdesirable must, by definition, be practical. Max Boot ofthe Council on Foreign Relations argued,

Poor governance is an argument for, not against,a troop surge. Only by sending more personnel, military and civilian, can President Obamaimprove the Afghan government’s performance,reverse the Taliban’s gains and prevent Al Qaeda’s allies from regaining the ground they lost after9/​11.

Boot’s claim is curious, to put it politely. Having failedto create an effective government and suppress insurgentsafter eight years of war, Washington must do more of thesame, Boot says, in the hope of achieving a different result. Maybe escalation is the only way, in theory, in whichthe Obama administration can improve the performanceof the Karzai regime. But theories do not always work inpractice.

This is no knock on America’s forces. Matthew Hoh, aformer Marine who resigned from the State Departmentafter spending time in Afghanistan, contended that no“military force has ever been tasked with such a complex,opaque and Sisyphean mission as the U.S. military has received in Afghanistan.”

Liberty, prosperity, democracy, and stability mayeventually come to Afghanistan, but only through the effortsof the Afghan people. Any system imposed from outside isbound to have limited credibility, stability; and longevity.

Washington should adjust its policy ends and militarymeans. Its principal objective should be protecting Americans. That means cooperating with friendly local forces,utilizing Special Forces, employing limited drone and airstrikes, drying up terrorist funding, sharing intelligence,and otherwise cooperating with friendly states. It does notmean building states and nations where none exist.

In 2002 Illinois state senator Barack Obama warnedagainst fighting a war “without a clear rationale and withoutstrong international support,” and argued that an invasionof Iraq would yield “a U.S. occupation of undeterminedlength, at undetermined cost, and with unintended consequences:” Unfortunately, that appears to be the currentscenario in Afghanistan.

President Obama still has time to reconsider his course.If he does not, Afghanistan is likely to define his presidency as Iraq does that of George W. Bush and Vietnam thatof Lyndon B. Johnson.