On Afghanistan, Asking the Wrong Question

>Forty years ago, I flew into Vietnam. I was wearing the uniform of a United States Marine, captain's bars on my collar. Somewhere over the Pacific, I had taken out a yellow legal pad (I was a judge advocate, which significantly reduced the chances of my being killed or wounded), and started a journal. I remember writing, in effect, I don't know if this war is right or wrong, but by God, if we're going to be there, we should win.

I was reminded of this when I read Jim Fallows post in which he said he would be examining the AfPak Wikileaks documents with one question in mind: Can the Afghanistan project work? In other words, can we win?

It's the wrong question, Jim. (We've been friends since our days as "Nader's Raiders.") The question is, should we be there at all.

Some months ago, I heard Rory Stewart -- one of Britain's leading voices on Afghanistan, and now a member of parliament -- make the case against complete withdrawal. First, he proffered, NATO withdrawal would lead to civil war. Second, he said, "maybe" the United States and the West in Afghanistan had national security interests in Afghanistan, which required a military presence. Finally, he argued, American credibility was at stake: withdrawal would embolden its enemies and undermine its allies.

It was a compelling argument, made at a conference in London co-sponsored by The New York Review of Books and The Guardian. But there was something disquieting about it. First, is it in America's interest, or its duty or obligation, to prevent a civil war in Afghanistan? Second, isn't it Foreign Policy 101 that a country decide whether or not it has security interests before making a decision about going to war? Third, during Vietnam, when all was going from bad to worse, over and over, we were told that America's "credibility" was at stake. We eventually withdrew, most ignominiously, and Vietnam became Communist. If America's credibility suffered, it wasn't for long: when Europe was troubled by the turmoil in its own Balkans neighborhood, it begged the United States to come to the rescue. No one questions that America is the most powerful nation in the world, with the most credible military.

Stewart's argument that we should remain in Afghanistan, albeit in his view with a substantially smaller military force, held the day among the conference observers. Then, Bill Bradley asked a question. Stewart is a former British diplomat, and the erudite former New Jersey senator, who has an ability to zero in on issues, asked him to assume that he had been given the mission of negotiating with the Taliban. What exactly would you negotiate, Bradley asked. And in particular, what would you negotiate to do about Al Qaeda.

Stewart started with Al Qaeda. He was concise and unequivocal. Al Qaeda was not an existential threat to the United States or the West; it was no longer capable of pulling off a major attack. Numerous British officials have said the same over recent months, adding that better intelligence and police work at home are needed to keep London subways and airports safe.

More strikingly, Stewart said it would be possible to get a pledge from the Taliban not to allow Al Qaeda to operate from Afghan territory. No training camps. Period. And if you violate this, Mr. Taliban, remember what our armies did in October 2001. The missiles and drones will rain down on you, even in greater numbers. We will crush you.

What then about human rights, especially the rights of girls and women? Stewart thought it would be possible to negotiate with the Taliban on those issues.

With those answers, the "should we be there" question seemed to be answered for many at the conference. In answering Bradley, Stewart had talked the audience out of his own position. No, they thought, we should not be there. The reason we went to war after 9/11 was to defeat al Qaeda. If we've done that, and if some human rights concessions can be extracted from the Taliban, why remain?

Many would argue that the United States now has a "moral obligation" to the Afghanistan people. We intervened to help defeat the Soviet Union, then withdrew, leaving the Afghans at the mercy of the Taliban. Do we withdraw again because we have required our objectives, leaving the country in shambles, at the mercy of the Taliban.

In law school, they teach, "ask your question, get your answer."

If the question is, do we have a moral obligation, to insure that little girls can go to school, that women are not stoned to death, most would answer, "we should be there."

But what if the question is, are you willing to send your son or daughter to die in Afghanistan, so that children can fly kites, women can work outside the home?

These are different questions than "can we win," and the answers won't be found in any of the 92,000 Wikileak documents.