Ross On Afghanistan: Getting Warmer


It's such a relief to have my former colleague, Mr Douthat, writing intelligently from the right-of-center in the NYT. How does one begin to tackle the likes of Krauthammer or Kristol on the new empire? They are never wrong, never revisit any previous dogmas, and believe that a priori, American force is always right. Better to have some modicum of honesty to engage with. Ross' core argument as to why, after ten years, we are still increasing troops and resources in Afghanistan, is as follows:

First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.

This strikes me as his weakest logical link. What we're talking about here is a "memory". Do we commit men to arms because of a memory - or because they have a chance to achieve an advancement of American interests in a dangerous world? I fear this primary domestic political argument is what is really fueling this war. Which is to say: even if the war should end, it cannot. Even if it contributes not a whit to national security, no president could afford to withdraw and then explain a subsequent terror attack on the US. The right would play the Dolchstoss card; and the Democrats are far too weak-kneed to counter or withstand it. This, to my mind, is not a solution to the problem; it's a restatement of it.

Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords.

But this means that even if the war in Afghanistan were successful, we still could not withdraw because of the Qaeda bases in Pakistan. And we were told this weekend, for good measure, that there are a mere 50 or so al Qaeda operatives in all of Afghanistan. So we are occupying a country to tackle another country, which we cannot occupy and which is technically an ally. How do you tell the families of the fallen that this is what their son died for?

Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind. This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

But since Pakistan's nukes are not going away, and Islamist fervor is stoked by US occupation of Afghanistan, this means that the US will be there forever. Ross talks as if this presents no structural challenges. But it seems to me it does reveal the core reality of post-9/11 America: it enabled and entrenched a permanent US occupation of Af-Pak with over 100,000 troops for ever. (By for ever, I do not mean eternity, merely an occupation without a foreseeable end within the next five years, and a bipartisan consensus in Washington that we cannot afford to leave.)

The question remains: does occupying Afghanistan recruit more than 50 terrorist for al Qaeda? At 51 new Jihadists, we are creating more terror than we are defeating in Afghanistan. And since the only way to tackle al Qaeda in Pakistan is by exactly the kind of tactics that Biden - and not Petraeus - has suggested for Afghanistan, one has to ask if pursuing counter-insurgency in one place and counter-terrorism in another is ... well, spectacularly incoherent. You get all the human and fiscal cost of counter-insurgency occupation and all the blowback and Jihadist-recruitment of counter-terrorism.

Then there's the factor that Ross doesn't even mention: what if the core object of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is, in the best of all possible worlds, simply impossible? What if that failed state, after a generation of religious and ethnic warfare, cannot be turned into a functional state at any price in any foreseeable time-frame? Washington doesn't like to believe there are some things it simply cannot do. Even now. Even after Iraq, they still believe in their power to do anything.

This is how great powers destroy themselves. By the pride of elites and the fears of the masses.

(Photo: This picture shows a commemorative memorial to British soldiers killed in action on previous tours of Afghanistan, at a patrol base in the Nahr e Saraj, Helmand on June 28, 2010. The death toll for foreign soldiers in Afghanistan neared the grim milestone of 100 for June alone as the CIA chief warned the anti-Taliban war would be tougher and longer than expected. By Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty.)