By Paolo von Schirach
March 6, 2012
WASHINGTON – The Afghanistan $ 2 billion a week war is losing political support in Washington. Well, about time I would say. In fact, it is absolutely remarkable how a ten year costly war, whose purpose remains largely opaque, can go and on without any serious national debate on purpose, objectives and appropriate tools.
Home front starting to crack
But now the home front is starting to crack, it seems. And the issue is the anti-American riots provoked by the Quran burning incident. In this violence several US servicemen have been killed, while US bases were attacked. All this violent anti-Americanism certainly does not help grow the ranks of those who believe in this occupation. Even president Obama, while not announcing any policy shifts in his March 6 press conference, seems to agree. ”I think that it is an indication of the challenges in that environment –he said– and it’s an indication that now is the time for us to transition.” The president added that the killing of Americans by Afghan rioters is “unacceptable.”
Congress no longer safely on board
And now there are strong noises from Congress. The Associated Press reports that a “letter calling for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan had the backing of 23 senators, mostly Democrats but including two conservative Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky…Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who circulated the letter with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said in a statement that there is “something fundamentally wrong with spending $88 billion for national building in Afghanistan while we’re asking Americans to make tough cuts here at home.”
Of course it would be different if the president could make a strong case for spending all this money. But he is not doing it. And so even though the US is committed to a transition process leading to an exit by 2014, the Democrats in Congress are no longer willing to give the administration a pass on the conduct of this war with no purpose.
In 2001 it started with al Qaeda
But let’s look at how this occupation started. Back in the fall of 2011 the US intervention was all about giving a serious lesson to Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and to the Taliban regime that was openly hosting them. That said, ten years into this conflict, while keeping al Qaeda and pro al Qaeda Taliban factions out of Afghanistan is still a valid objctive, it is not at all clear that the military occupation of the country (with 90,000 US troops currently deployed there), while working on an overall plan for Afghan modernization, is really the best means to the end.
Fighting terror does not include an Afghan make-over
Again, let us remember that the US intervened in Afghanistan in order to neutralize a threat to America’s national security represented by organized al Qaeda militants willing and capable to attack American and Western interests around the world. That was the goal.
While it would be nice to modernize Afghanistan, and while we could certainly make the argument that a modern, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan would be better immunized from Islamic radicalism, this is a “de luxe” solution to a terror problem that, while serious, did not and does represent the most serious existential threat to America. As 9/11 painfully told us, a few, determined fanatics, if they cannot be identifies and stopped, can do a lot of damage. But this is a good reason to go after them with our intelligence and special operations assets, (this is how we got Osama bin laden, in the end), and not for trying to reform the societies within which they live and operate.
Counter terror and not counter insurgency
In other words, because of 9/11 and other such incidents Washington should have fashioned a sophisticated counter terror strategy applied to Afghanistan and all other regions in which terrorists are hiding. An Afghan make over, even assuming that it had been feasible, shoud have been regarded as an expensive extra; not an integral part of the program. Whereas somehow it became part of the program; and it is still is today, without anybody seriously challenging the proposition and its cost.
Amazingly, while a few years ago the Democrats shouted daily against the craziness of the war in Iraq wanted by George W. Bush and supported by the Republicans, Afghanistan is not the subject of any heated debate. The Republicans, for the their part, say nothing, assuming that being tough and staying the course is the thing to do.
The war goes on
And so we keep spending $ 2 billion a week for an occupation that has little rationale. The end game is supposedly to train the Afghans so that they will be capable of fighting the insurgency on their own, after we are gone in 2014. A good idea in theory, but the implementation appears to be spotty.
In the end, this war in Afghanistan is a silly luxury with little value and no clear formula for success. The US should rapidly reduce its foot print in Afghanistan, narrow its goals, and stay focused on the radical fanatics, be they al Qaeda or other such groups. They are the threat.
Quite frankly, even a Taliban government, assuming that it would be the large factions not interested in the terrorism business, should not be an issue for America. There are plenty of countries with nasty, illiberal governments. As long as they do not represent a direct or potential threat to the US, we let them be. Why should Afghanistan be any different?