President Obama has finally made up his mind on Afghanistan — sort of. The clear decision and explanation that would either give meaning and rationale to our troops’ efforts or lay the foundation for a reasoned withdrawal has been put off, yet again.
It is almost heresy in conservative circles to say that changing circumstances — and not just President Obama’s indecisiveness — make it a good idea to start winding down America’s role in Afghanistan. This is heretical partly because of the noble instinct that if America goes into a war, she should finish it. It is also because the Left incessantly compares Afghanistan to Vietnam; we all realize how shallow this comparison is, so we seek to distance ourselves from the entire line of thought.
But the time has come to study another comparison: Afghanistan and Iraq. Conservatives who pride themselves on a realistic view of national security and military power must realize that while the Iraq War is still vital to national security and susceptible to the successful use of our military, the Afghanistan war is not.
Both wars were justified at inception — in the case of Afghanistan, to overthrow a government that refused to yield those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; in the case of Iraq, to rid the world of a dictator who threatened neighbors while resisting nuclear inspection. However, now that the Taliban government has been overthrown and Saddam Hussein has been found, tried, and hanged, conservatives must weigh the strategic importance of each country to American national interest and the chances of a successful intervention.
Strategic interest is an overused concept, but a useful one if it is crisply and succinctly defined. During my time at the State Department, I read a paper that described Chad as a country “strategic” to the United States, and I thought: If Chad is strategic to us, every country in the world is strategic, and the concept is useless.
What’s a better definition? Given the globalized economy of today, a country is “strategic” when what happens there affects not just the country itself, or even a bordering country, but the region. In this light, a comparison of Iraq and Afghanistan is far more instructive than the oft-made comparisons of each and Vietnam.
Natural resources are one measure of strategic value, but they are important mainly when a country has a monopoly over a resource that has no substitute. Iraq is a big oil producer, although far from a monopoly; Afghanistan has no unique resource, unless you count opium.
Geography is another measure. Does the country sit on a key waterway, and if it were unfriendly, could it threaten shipping? Iraq on the Persian Gulf arguably fits, while landlocked Afghanistan obviously does not.
Perhaps the most important criterion is whether the country has a political or military impact on the stability and nature of government in neighboring states. Iraq is an Arab country bordering many other Arab countries. Whether Iraq is controlled by Islamic terrorists or has a stable quasi-democracy will affect the surrounding Arab states in their choice of government, their dispensation of oil, and whether they go to war. Iraq’s region possesses more oil than any other in the world. It sits astride key maritime transportation routes and affects the migration flows to many continents. It makes war-and-peace decisions that affect the United States and its allies.
Such is not the case with Afghanistan. No one asserts that “As Afghanistan goes, so goes Turkmenistan,” though much has been made recently of the alleged interconnectedness of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are told that if Afghanistan is totally or partly controlled by the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies, Pakistan will be endangered. The proponents of this view make two assumptions: that a country that borders on a strategic country must be strategic — thus again making almost every country in the world strategic; and that Pakistan is itself strategic, even though it contains no valuable resources, has no key maritime position, and has been soundly thumped in three wars by its neighbor, democratic and strategically important India.
But even making these assumptions, why will the fall of part or all of Afghanistan to the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies endanger Pakistan? For over a decade the Taliban harbored al-Qaeda and controlled Afghanistan. The Pakistani government not only did not fail; it was far more stable than it is today. There are no signs that Pakistan’s strong army, infrastructure, and nuclear weapons will fall to its own Taliban. But if it does so, it will be because of Pakistan’s corruption, illiteracy, tolerance of modern slavery, incompetence, lack of government or popular will, and disdain for the West — not because of who rules its sparsely populated, weaker neighbor.
Naturally, we should sympathize with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who do not enjoy the blessings of democratic government and free enterprise. But such sympathies are not the basis of a foreign policy that is either idealistic or realistic.
This brings us to the only valid reason for staying in Afghanistan: that if we pull out, we will damage our credibility. Put another way, even though our mission has changed from the original one of punishing the Afghan Taliban for 9/11, our withdrawal will represent a defeat for the United States and will inspire al-Qaeda and its allies around the world.
This is hard to measure. Will Islamic terrorists who hate the Filipino or Saudi governments increase their efforts upon our military withdrawal from Afghanistan? Perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t. But even if there is a spillover effect, our further direct military effort in Afghanistan is justified only if we can intervene successfully, with “success” defined as leaving behind a terrorist-free state.
Here the contrast with Iraq is most instructive. Afghanistan is a vastly larger country with fewer roads to transport supplies and troops. It is no accident that in previous centuries the British, with 25,000 troops, were able to control Iraq easily, but never to control Afghanistan. It is no accident that with 110,000 troops the Soviet Union was not able to set up a stable Communist government in Afghanistan. While insurgents were active in many parts of Iraq, they never controlled any significant area. In Afghanistan, the insurgents now control at least one-quarter of the country, and this area has increased over the last few years.
The social and political portents aren’t as favorable in Afghanistan as in Iraq, either. While Iraq has a literacy rate of over 70 percent, Afghanistan’s is less than 33 percent. With higher educational levels, the elections in Iraq, while never perfect, have never descended into the fraud-wracked state of the elections in Afghanistan. Similarly, the Iraqi army and police have posed problems, but every observer agrees that Afghanistan’s army and police are nowhere near as well trained or numerous as their counterparts in Iraq. After six years there are more than 600,000 functioning Iraqi army and police. After eight years it is not clear if there are even 100,000 effective Afghan army and police. Iraq is a functioning, albeit shaky, quasi-democratic government. Afghanistan has neither democracy nor a functioning government.
Of course, the fact that our chances of success are far bleaker in Afghanistan than in Iraq does not completely eliminate the argument that our credibility demands we remain, no matter what the risk. The historic word for credibility, honor, as historian Donald Kagan has admirably expounded, has been a driving force behind wars since the time of ancient Greece. But here’s the rub: You lose more honor — along with lives and treasure — when you fail, as the Athenian democracy found out when it sought to change the government in far-off Sicily.
We did not start the conflict in Afghanistan. The Taliban and al-Qaeda did. We punished them. We overthrew their government. These were reasonable, attainable, low-risk objectives. Setting up a Taliban-free government in Afghanistan — let alone the peaceful and democratic one that may be necessary to achieve this objective — will be costly, unlikely, and focused on a country in no way strategic to us. And, just as important, a substantially increased effort — including the half-hearted, almost-no-chance-of-success Obama initiative — will just make it more dishonorable to withdraw later and lead to greater loss of credibility when we do so.
We have invested more in strategically important Iraq, and with better results in a shorter time, than in strategically unimportant Afghanistan. The chances of success and the consequences of failure are therefore far greater in Iraq. The chances of success and the consequences of failure are far less in Afghanistan — but the consequences of failure will grow if we increase our effort there.
We entered both countries with justification and the best of motives. There is ample justification for finishing the job in Iraq, where both our strategic interests and prospects for success are large and real; there is no justification for trying to finish the job in Afghanistan, where our strategic interests and prospects for success are meager and unreal.
Conservatives cannot hew to a position because a Republican president rightly intervened in Afghanistan eight years ago, or because a Democratic president who wrongfully opposed our intervention in Iraq now declares the present Afghanistan intervention the “right war” while not fully supporting it. Conservatives know that military intervention must always be an option in American foreign policy. We must also realize that in order to sustain effective military interventions in the future, they should be reserved for places where there are important, strategic, and attainable goals. This is the case in Iraq; it is no longer the case in Afghanistan.