Complicating the Afghanistan Debate

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Complicating the Afghanistan Debate

As Administration insiders take sides on whether to “surge,” stand pat, or stand down in Afghanistan, the anti-surge forces have drawn support from word that we are doing very well with our ongoing campaign against Al Quaeda using drones and, no doubt, human intelligence.  Apparently we have killed or captured half the Al Quaeda leaders we had targeted in Afghanistan over the past year

Remember that it was Afghanistan’s sheltering of Al Quaeda, in particular the 9/11 conspirators, that ostensibly led us to take out the Taliban government in the first place.  We are enjoying success at that enterprise, however, without eliminating the Taliban.  And so, the logic would seem to suggest, maybe we don’t have to beat the Taliban to beat Al Quaeda.  

There are good arguments on the other side.  If we didn’t have our armies there, Al Quaeda would enjoy greater geographical range and hence be harder to trace and target, it is said.  That sounds reasonable.  And we can assume that if we leave or lose Afghanistan, Al Quaeda’s fighters who are hiding in Pakistan will come back too. 

Beyond that, it is urged that we should be trying to beat the Taliban as an objective in its own right.  Or as a means to protect Afghanistan’s women, whom we have every reason to believe will be as disenfranchised and brutalized upon the Taliban’s return as they were when the Taliban held power.  (See The Kite Runner for details.) 

There are obviously no perfect answers here.  However, restricting our focus to the tactical question of Al Quaeda for the moment, we have to weigh the inevitable cost in lives and money and foregone national opportunity to hold off the Taliban against the increased risk if we let events in Afghanistan take their course.  (Which probably means letting the Taliban win again, honestly.)  Do we really want to fight a whole large nationalist movement (however hateful) just to stop a separate small (if historically effective) terrorist front? 

It has been fashionable since the days of Cheney and Rumsfeld to assume that a military effort backed by a national security-focused state is the only way to prevent further terrorism arriving on our shores.  To me, a sincere effort to be the kind of country young Muslim men don’t easily hate would be the better primary tactic to achieve this end.  And you cannot do that with too much militarization and/or too much focus on national security.  The spiritual habits such things engender inevitably (and rightly) make people hate us.  In short, we have to choose on this one; we cannot have it both ways.  

So let the debate about Afghanistan be about Afghanistan, not about Al Quaeda.  But we should recognize that if we are tough about Afghanistan, if we choose continued warfare, we shall remain the crusaders Al Quaeda hates.  If we stand down in Afghanistan, however, we undercut stereotypes Al Quaeda relies upon.  And that, plus the cost of what may be a hopeless war anyhow, should be powerful incentive not to prolong an endless war.  (A war which is 8 years old today.)

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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