Why Are We Still in Afghanistan?

 

Congress voted down a resolution to pull out of Afghanistan today.

“Conventional wisdom” among many Americans – and congress members – is that we need to be in Afghanistan to protect our national security.

Is it true?

A Little History

Before we discuss whether it is necessary for the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan, a little history might be instructive.

As I pointed out in December:

The Taliban offered [in October 2001] to hand over Osama bin Laden to a neutral country if the US halted bombing … [the U.S. refused.]

The government apparently planned the Afghanistan war before 9/11 (see this and this).

And the government apparently could have killed Bin Laden in 2001 and AGAIN in 2007, but failed to do so.

In fact, starting right after 9/11 — at the latest — the goal has always been to create “regime change” and instability in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon and other countries. As American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst Gareth Porter writes in the Asia Times:

Three weeks after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld established an official military objective of not only removing the Saddam Hussein regime by force but overturning the regime in Iran, as well as in Syria and four other countries in the Middle East, according to a document quoted extensively in then-under secretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith’s recently published account of the Iraq war decisions. Feith’s account further indicates that this aggressive aim of remaking the map of the Middle East by military force and the threat of force was supported explicitly by the country’s top military leaders.

Feith’s book, War and Decision, released last month, provides excerpts of the paper Rumsfeld sent to President George W Bush on September 30, 2001, calling for the administration to focus not on taking down Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network but on the aim of establishing “new regimes” in a series of states

***

General Wesley Clark, who commanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign in the Kosovo war, recalls in his 2003 book Winning Modern Wars being told by a friend in the Pentagon in November 2001 that the list of states that Rumsfeld and deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz wanted to take down included Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia [and Lebanon].

***

When this writer asked Feith . . . which of the six regimes on the Clark list were included in the Rumsfeld paper, he replied, “All of them.”

***

The Defense Department guidance document made it clear that US military aims in regard to those states would go well beyond any ties to terrorism. The document said the Defense Department would also seek to isolate and weaken those states and to “disrupt, damage or destroy” their military capacities – not necessarily limited to weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Indeed, the goal seems to have more to do with being a superpower (i.e. an empire) than stopping terrorism.

As Porter writes:

After the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa [in 1998] by al-Qaeda operatives, State Department counter-terrorism official Michael Sheehan proposed supporting the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against bin Laden’s sponsor, the Taliban regime. However, senior US military leaders “refused to consider it”, according to a 2004 account by Richard H Shultz, Junior, a military specialist at Tufts University.

A senior officer on the Joint Staff told State Department counter-terrorism director Sheehan he had heard terrorist strikes characterized more than once by colleagues as a “small price to pay for being a superpower”.

And recall that former U.S. National Security Adviser (and top foreign policy advisor) Zbigniew Brzezinski told the Senate that the war on terror is “a mythical historical narrative”.

Indeed, one of the country’s top counter-terrorism experts, former number 2 counter-terrorism expert at the State Department (Terry Arnold – who I’ve interviewed twice), has repeatedly pointed out that bombing civilians in Afghanistan is creating many more terrorists than it is removing.

In other words, America’s original stated reasons for invading Afghanistan don’t hold much water.

If We Didn’t Need to Be There for National Security Purposes, We Wouldn’t Be There

Most who realize that America’s Afghan strategy has been poor still think we’re stuck there until we clean up the mess and stabilize the region.

In fact, however, Obama has never really given a reason for continuing the Afghan war.

Psychologists and sociologists show us that people will rationalize what their leaders are doing, even when it makes no sense. For example, as I pointed out in November:

Sociologists from four major research institutions investigated why so many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, years after it became obvious that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

The researchers found, as described in an article in the journal Sociological Inquiry (and re-printed by Newsweek):

  • Many Americans felt an urgent need to seek justification for a war already in progress
  • Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.
  • “For the most part people completely ignore contrary information.”
  • “The study demonstrates voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information”
  • People get deeply attached to their beliefs, and form emotional attachments that get wrapped up in their personal identity and sense of morality, irrespective of the facts of the matter.
  • “We refer to this as ‘inferred justification, because for these voters, the sheer fact that we were engaged in war led to a post-hoc search for a justification for that war.
  • “People were basically making up justifications for the fact that we were at war”
  • “They wanted to believe in the link [between 9/11 and Iraq] because it helped them make sense of a current reality. So voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information, whether we think that is good or bad for democratic practice, does at least demonstrate an impressive form of creativity.

An article yesterday in Alternet discussing the Sociological Inquiry article helps us to understand that the key to people’s active participation in searching for excuses for actions by the big boys is fear:

Subjects were presented during one-on-one interviews with a newspaper clip of this Bush quote: “This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaeda.”The Sept. 11 Commission, too, found no such link, the subjects were told.

“Well, I bet they say that the commission didn’t have any proof of it,” one subject responded, “but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.”

Reasoned another: “Saddam, I can’t judge if he did what he’s being accused of, but if Bush thinks he did it, then he did it.”

Others declined to engage the information at all. Most curious to the researchers were the respondents who reasoned that Saddam must have been connected to Sept. 11, because why else would the Bush Administration have gone to war in Iraq?

The desire to believe this was more powerful, according to the researchers, than any active campaign to plant the idea.

Such a campaign did exist in the run-up to the war…

He won’t credit [politicians spouting misinformation] alone for the phenomenon, though.

“That kind of puts the idea out there, but what people then do with the idea … ” he said. “Our argument is that people aren’t just empty vessels. You don’t just sort of open up their brains and dump false information in and they regurgitate it. They’re actually active processing cognitive agents”…

The alternate explanation raises queasy questions for the rest of society.

“I think we’d all like to believe that when people come across disconfirming evidence, what they tend to do is to update their opinions,” said Andrew Perrin, an associate professor at UNC and another author of the study…

“The implications for how democracy works are quite profound, there’s no question in my mind about that,” Perrin said. “What it means is that we have to think about the emotional states in which citizens find themselves that then lead them to reason and deliberate in particular ways.”

Evidence suggests people are more likely to pay attention to facts within certain emotional states and social situations. Some may never change their minds. For others, policy-makers could better identify those states, for example minimizing the fear that often clouds a person’s ability to assess facts

The Alternet article links to a must-read interview with psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, who explains:

A large body of evidence shows that momentarily [raising fear of death], typically by asking people to think about themselves dying, intensifies people’s strivings to protect and bolster aspects of their worldviews, and to bolster their self-esteem. The most common finding is that [fear of death] increases positive reactions to those who share cherished aspects of one’s cultural worldview, and negative reactions toward those who violate cherished cultural values or are merely different.

 

The same is true for Afghanistan. People tend to rationalize justifications for the war, even though Obama has not given any.

But Don’t We Have to Clean Up the Mess Now?

Americans assume that we need to continue the Afghan war to stop terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But newly-declassified government documents show that the Taliban might not have supported Bin Laden or Al Qaeda’s terorrorist activities.

And as I pointed out in October, the rational for a large-scale war in Afghanistan doesn’t make sense:

The U.S. admits there are only a small handful of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As ABC notes:

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded there are only about 100 al Qaeda fighters in the entire country.

With 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at an estimated yearly cost of $30 billion, it means that for every one al Qaeda fighter, the U.S. will commit 1,000 troops and $300 million a year…

Indeed, a leading advisor to the U.S. military – the very hawkish Rand Corporation – released a study in 2008 called “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida”. The report confirms what experts have been saying for years: the war on terror is actually weakening national security.

As a press release about the study states:

Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism.

***

But if you want a military solution anyway, Andrew J. Bacevich has an answer.

Bacevich is no dove. Graduating from West Point in 1969, he served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He then held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s. Bacevich holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. Bacevich’s is a military family. On May 13, 2007, Bacevich’s son, was killed in action while serving in Iraq.

Last year, Bacevich wrote in an article in Newsweek:

Meanwhile, the chief effect of allied military operations there so far has been not to defeat the radical Islamists but to push them across the Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications. September’s bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad suggests that the extremists are growing emboldened. Today and for the foreseeable future, no country poses a greater potential threat to U.S. national security than does Pakistan. To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.

All this means that the proper U.S. priority for Afghanistan should be not to try harder but to change course. The war in Afghanistan (like the Iraq War) won’t be won militarily. It can be settled—however imperfectly—only through politics.

The new U.S. president needs to realize that America’s real political objective in Afghanistan is actually quite modest: to ensure that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda can’t use it as a safe haven for launching attacks against the West. Accomplishing that won’t require creating a modern, cohesive nation-state. U.S. officials tend to assume that power in Afghanistan ought to be exercised from Kabul. Yet the real influence in Afghanistan has traditionally rested with tribal leaders and warlords. Rather than challenge that tradition, Washington should work with it. Offered the right incentives, warlords can accomplish U.S. objectives more effectively and more cheaply than Western combat battalions. The basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should therefore become decentralization and outsourcing, offering cash and other emoluments to local leaders who will collaborate with the United States in excluding terrorists from their territory.

This doesn’t mean Washington should blindly trust that warlords will become America’s loyal partners. U.S. intelligence agencies should continue to watch Afghanistan closely, and the Pentagon should crush any jihadist activities that local powers fail to stop themselves. As with the Israelis in Gaza, periodic airstrikes may well be required to pre-empt brewing plots before they mature.

Were U.S. resources unlimited and U.S. interests in Afghanistan more important, upping the ante with additional combat forces might make sense. But U.S. power — especially military power — is quite limited these days, and U.S. priorities lie elsewhere.

Rather than committing more troops, therefore, the new president should withdraw them while devising a more realistic — and more affordable — strategy for Afghanistan

In other words, America’s war strategy is increasing instability in Pakistan. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. So the surge could very well decrease not only American national security but the security of the entire world.

I think that diplomatic rather than military means should be used to kill or contain the 100 bad guys in Afghanistan. But if we are going to remain engaged militarily, Bacevich’s approach is a lot smarter than a surge of boots on the ground.

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