Is Afghanistan Worth It?

As the Afghan election plays out, American commentators debate the merits and strategies of the war

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A month ago, Peter Bergen argued in The Washington Monthly that Afghanistan was not going to be "Obama's Vietnam." Nor, he also argued, would it resemble the disastrous Soviet adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Is that true? On the eve of the Afghan election, commentators have been debating not just the likely results of the vote, but the very rationale and strategies for continued U.S. presence in the country.

  • The "Safe Haven" Argument  Over at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt and Paul Cruickshank faced off over the fundamentals: why is the U.S. in the area anyway? Walt argued against "uncritically" accepting the presidential premise of an abandoned Afghanistan turning into a terrorist breeding ground. "The 'safe haven' argument wrongly suggests that the Taliban care as much about attacking America as bin Laden does," wrote Walt, adding that the Taliban were also unlikely to provide shelter for a group that caused them such trouble in 2001. Responding to these points, among others, Cruickshank noted that while the Taliban and al Qaeda were "distinct groups [...] Taliban commanders have increasingly bought into Al Qaeda's vision of 'Global Jihad' in recent years." As for Taliban cost-benefit analysis on harboring terrorists?  "The Taliban," countered Cruisckshank in an indisputable rejoinder, "can hardly be accused of being poster children for 'rational state actors.'"
  • Lessons from History: Why Aren't We Winning This?  Bloggers Matt Yglesias of Think Progress and Kevin Drum of Mother Jones have had their own topic of conversation. Delving into an Afghanistan reading list, Yglesias asked why, if "American and Saudi and Pakistani support for the Mujahedeen was an important factor" in Soviet defeat, Americans are now doing so poorly. "Is our side actually much less effective than the Soviets were," he asked, "when you control for the change in external support?" The Taliban's isolation, Drum responded, is one of the "big arguments" for why Afghanistan isn't Vietnam. But Drum shares Yglesias's skepticism:
If the Taliban really is small and isolated, we shouldn't need a troop buildup.  We should be able to beat them with 50,000 troops plus help from the Afghan army.  The fact that we haven't after eight years — that, in fact, our progress has been negative over that time — suggests either (a) we have no idea how to fight them, or (b) they're more formidable than we think.
  • No Excuses: Let's Win This Thing  This morning, the editors of the National Review made their position clear: Obama "campaigned on Afghanistan as the good and essential war," and it's time for him to keep his promises. The current strategy review, they wrote, may require as many as 30,000 more troops "on top of the 21,000 new troops this year. [...] On a trip in Afghanistan recently, even national security adviser Jim Jones said such a request would cause a “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment” for the president. It shouldn’t, if he is serious about winning the war."

One thing seems clear: feasibility and advisability are inextricably linked in all of these debates--unsurprising in a society still arguing about Vietnam. Whether a war is "worth it" appears, at least in these recent exchanges, to be tangled up in the question of whether or not it is winnable.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.