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Choosing Our Wars

Published in National Review

President Obama cannot make up his mind on Afghanistan. The “war of necessity” has become the maybe war. And now Republicans are divided over whether we should stay there.

After rightly supporting the initial military intervention in Afghanistan and the continuing intervention in Iraq, conservatives need to go beyond slogans such as “staying the course” and “finishing the job.” Our leaders need to choose thoughtfully. Choose how often to intervene, choose on what basis to intervene, and choose how to intervene effectively.

The U.S. now has the largest military in the world, larger than the militaries of all other countries combined. This is a good thing and not a bad one, as some on the left would have us believe. However, the finest military in the world will not remain so if we engage in long interventions all over the globe.

When we contemplate choosing one intervention, we must ask whether this will leave our military weaker when another, perhaps more urgent threat arises. Will keeping well over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan for years (yes, this means doing lots more than Obama’s half-in, half-out approach) leave us militarily strong enough to take on Iran and/or North Korea, which pose far greater nuclear and terrorist threats? Will it leave us able to intervene when a large number of al-Qaeda adherents (far larger than the hundred or so in Afghanistan) threaten to attack our homeland or our allies, as they are doing in Yemen today and perhaps other countries tomorrow?

Ancient Athens had military supremacy but diverted so many resources to invasions of Sicily and other islands that it was unable to defend itself against the alliance led by Sparta. Nazi Germany had the world’s most effective military but lost its chances for victory by fighting a war on two fronts. To remain credible we must pick and choose.

The best example of picking and choosing where and where not to employ our military is President Reagan in the 1980s. After more than two hundred Marines died when a truck bomb hit their barracks, the president decided to cut our losses and withdraw from terrorist-plagued Lebanon. And it is a good thing Reagan did. If we had then adopted the present arguments of some Republicans for “staying the course,” we might today still be fighting and nation-building in that strife-torn country — and, with the draining of our strength, losing more and more military credibility.

What is the basis for choosing where our military should be employed for years? This requires clear thinking not just about our initial interventions but about what constitutes a long-term national strategic interest justifying a long-term intervention.

Iraq is a strategic interest; Afghanistan is not. Iraq produces a needed natural resource, oil; Afghanistan produces opium. Iraq sits astride a waterway with large military and commercial traffic; Afghanistan is landlocked. Most important, what happens with Iraq’s government will arguably affect the peaceful and democratic inclinations of its neighbors. No one argues that what happens with Afghanistan’s government will affect what happens in Turkmenistan.

Oh, yes — we are told that what happens in Afghanistan will affect Pakistan. But while Pakistan influences Afghanistan, where is the evidence that the reverse is true? A Taliban government existed in Afghanistan for a decade, a Soviet-imposed government for a decade before that, and a monarchy still earlier. Yet Pakistan has changed little in that time. It has the same sort of corrupt, military-oriented government that takes our billions in return for our hope that bribes will keep it from doing something — just what is not exactly clear. If Islamic extremists gain control of Pakistan’s nukes, it will not be because of Afghanistan but because of the internal failures of Pakistan.

Declaring that Afghanistan is now a long-term strategic interest of the United States reminds me of a memo that crossed my desk in the State Department years ago declaring that we had a long-term strategic interest in Chad. If we have long-term strategic interests in Chad or Afghanistan, then we must have long-term strategic interests in every country in the world.

Which brings us to the question of how, once we have made a selective choice on where to intervene, we can do so effectively. Tackling Iran or North Korea would involve overwhelming use of sea and air power, and perhaps limited ground power. To guard against a terrorist group overthrowing or destabilizing a regime means cooperating with an incumbent government and its people in counterinsurgency operations.

Counterinsurgency can be effective and worthwhile. The best example is the British use of counterinsurgency tactics in Malaysia in the 1950s. However, for counterinsurgency to work, the people must want their government to succeed, and both the people and the government must welcome the outsiders’ military efforts. These prerequisites existed in Malaysia and to some extent in Iraq, but this is not so in Afghanistan.

With rapidly declining support for the Karzai regime, there is little Afghan popular support or appreciation for our troops fighting and dying.

Afghans do not demonstrate in support of American troops or against the Taliban. Instead, thousands of Afghans have demonstrated against NATO and burned American flags. And this is supposedly because of NATO-inflicted civilian casualties, when international observers report that the Taliban have inflicted three times as many civilian casualties.

Afghans did not turn out to vote in the recent elections even in areas secured by American forces.

We have spent nine years and many dollars training Afghan military and police forces, with as many negative as positive results. Not only have scores of American trainers been killed by Afghan trainees, but 20 percent of the Afghans who finish training promptly desert. Most of the remainder, according to our military observers, spend their time consuming drugs, taking long lunch breaks, and coercing payments out of the local population.

Not only do the Afghan people show little support for our efforts, the government we are trying to help can’t decide if it wants our help. President Karzai refers to us as “occupiers,” not “liberators”; he blames us for both the fraud in the recent elections and the widespread corruption in his nation; and he has threatened to “join the Taliban.” Compared to our efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq — with its more literate, secular, and affluent population and a functioning army — has been a model for counterinsurgency.

If both the government and the people of Afghanistan either don’t want us or lack the will to fight the Taliban, there is little chance of a counterinsurgency effort succeeding. A failed counterinsurgency will not only cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars; more important, it will weaken our military credibility around the world. Fighting a losing war that lasts for decades will not help us win wars in the future where far more may be at stake.

The irony is that the current Obama failures in Afghanistan, despite much Republican backing for the failed policies, may well benefit Republicans politically. In 1968 the Republicans, who had overwhelmingly backed Lyndon Johnson’s failed policies in Vietnam, won a presidential election because of those failures. In a Machiavellian way, one could argue that the Republican party’s position today mirrors its position on the Vietnam War and will bring similar benefits. It might. But it won’t benefit our country.

John R. Miller

John Ripin Miller, an American politician, was a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1985 to 1993. He represented the 1st congressional district of Washington as a Republican. While in Congress he championed human rights in Russia, China and South Africa.