Wednesday, September 02, 2009


I’ve had divided feelings about the war in Afghanistan. The initial attack, after 9/11, was justified to clean out al-Qaeda from the bases they had established there. The rest I haven’t been so sure about, not knowing much about Afghanistan and its culture.

There’s the problem of what “success” means, of course. Destroying the al-Qaeda bases is over and done with. Some opportunities were missed to destroy al-Qaeda personnel, but they’re long gone. It’s seven years now.The justification seems to be that we must do something – what? – in Afghanistan to make it proof against a repetition of the al-Qaeda infestation.

A report has come this week from General Stanley McChrystal that says things aren’t going well, but success is possible, implying a need for more troops. Anthony Cordesman echoes this, speaking of victory, but we are given no definitions. Cordesman would like to see Afghan civil and military capabilities beefed up. The White House is said to be developing something like 50 metrics to measure success.

If they asked me, I would probably say something like “let’s think about what we want Afghanistan to look like when we leave.” Ideally, of course, it would look like heartland America, with neat and clean people in normal clothing (not burkhas) who would be able to police their society and to mount democratic elections, who enjoyed a comfortable standard of living without having to grow poppy and who felt safe in their rebuilt homes, with the services of electricity and water that we have become accustomed to. Their children would attend schools that taught them what they needed to be responsible citizens.

But I would also specify that what we want Afghanistan to look like would need to be something we could achieve in the next year or so, with expenditures we can afford and that will be used reasonably wisely and honestly. So it will be considerably less than that heartland fantasy. I would not discount the possibility of continuing civilian aid, but I would urge removal of military might.

Military might is a very blunt instrument. The reasoning behind it seems to be that we need to break the power of the Taliban, who terrorize the population and sponsored al-Qaeda. So we are fighting another group that isn’t all that distinguishable from the population. The civilians that are killed, or can be claimed to be killed, neutralize whatever good the military may be doing.

Then there are the political-military questions of whom we ally with in the country, some of whom seem to be just as bad as the Taliban, although this is one of those questions I shy away from, because “warlords” seem likely to be “tribal leaders.”

If we assume that military might is the proper means, then I would ask about the logistics. Juan Cole asked about that little problem this week again. The issue came up most publicly a few months back when Russia and Kyrgyzstan played some games with the US airbase at Manas, Kyrgyzstan.

Afghanistan is surrounded by mountains, very high mountains. There are only a few passes through those mountains suitable for the heavy truck traffic that is necessary to supply a war. Much of the supply has been by air, not easy at those high altitudes either. Helicopters don’t work as well at high altitudes, which is pretty much all of Afghanistan. The big supply planes need the Manas base as a jumping-off point in the region, or some other equivalent. But getting around the country is no pleasure, either, with the roads damaged by the Soviets when they made their last stand there in the 1980s and further damaged over the last seven years.

And then there’s the effect on Pakistan. As has been said many times, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is highly porous and populated by Pashtuns whose loyalties to their tribe are stronger than to their nations. Pakistan has other troubles, however, and doesn’t necessarily place finding Osama bin Laden at the top of a national priority list. That place goes to India, some of whose scientists have lately been making noises about nuclear testing.

This is one of those places where everything seems to be tied together. Those scientists are probably, like Edward Teller, just trying to promote their interests in having the very nicest, most powerful and reliable nuclear weapons in the region, if not in the world. Or they may nationalistically not like the idea that their absolute freedom to test would be fettered by India’s signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which their new nuclear friends in the United States might insist on. The Indian government has said not to worry and has issued one of their characteristically equivocal statements about support for the CTBT, but Pakistan’s neck hairs have been raised.

So Pakistan obstructs progress at the Committee on Disarmament, where a treaty banning production of fissile material for nuclear weapons might be discussed, because they are building two new reactors to produce just such fissile material in defense against India, they would say. And they’ve freed Abdul Qadeer Khan (or maybe not – an indication of how divided Pakistan is?), the free-enterprise nuclear scientist, possibly to show India just how proud they are of their nuclear program, of which Khan is called the father.

Meanwhile, Pakistan may or may not have modified US-supplied missiles to attack India. And, for many reasons, Pakistan is none too stable internally. Having a war to its northwest has not helped its stability.

Back some long time ago, so long that I can’t recall whether it was on WhirledView or on a discussion board I long ago left, I suggested that war in Iraq could destabilize Central Asia. It didn’t do that, but war in Afghanistan has much greater potential for that. We already have had the Manas incident, and there remain significant instabilities in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

The greater danger, of course, is in Pakistan. An unstable Pakistan is more likely to feel it has to respond to events in India, as we see in the latest nuclear one-upmanship.

Finally, we have to ask what the war is doing to the United States. We have corrupted our military actions by including the war profiteers as integral parts of those actions, replacing the military with less competence for more money, of which the replacement of military guards for the embassy with contractors is only the latest example. Afghanistan has been part of the torture network. And a long war with unclear objectives always undermines military morale.

If we are in Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda, that mission is pretty well accomplished. We can’t secure a fragile nation like Afghanistan from future infiltrations by applying military force now. We need to figure out the best way to repair the damage the war has done and take our military out. That may take a while, but the direction needs to be changed from ever-increasing troop presence to withdrawal.

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