Just to be clear, when I ask, “Why are we in Afghanistan?” I don’t mean to imply that I’m actually sitting in Afghanistan. I’m actually in Georgia — the land of the free and home of the Braves.
Georgia and Afghanistan are similar in some important ways. Like Afghanistan, Georgia is overrun with heavily armed religious fundamentalists. But Georgia and Afghanistan are also dissimilar in key ways. For example, the armed zealots in Afghanistan don’t actually control the government, and the ones in Georgia are vastly superior to Afghans at the art of locating and consuming pork products.
When I say we, of course, I mean Americans. Not just the 68,000 troops currently fighting there, but all of us. It’s our war. In 2008, a clear majority of American voters hung their chads for Barack Obama, who explicitly promised to escalate the U.S. war in Afghanistan. It’s not Bush’s war. It’s America’s war.
So the question is, what the heck are we still doing there?
I know why we went there in the first place. We went there eight years ago because Afghanistan’s Taliban regime hosted the al-Qaida terrorists who conceived and executed the 9/11 attacks. When the war began, Bush said the goal was to dismantle al-Qaida’s terrorist infrastructure and trample the then-ruling Taliban regime if they failed to cooperate with U.S. demands.
The infrastructure was dismantled and the Taliban regime was scattered. But eight years later, we’re still there. Why? Because we didn’t consolidate our victory.
Al-Qaida was able to operate in Afghanistan because Afghanistan was essentially a failed state. We’re still there because we never unfailed it. I hate the metaphor that says you have to “drain the swamp” to get rid of mosquitoes, because it compares people to insects. But for all of the expression’s inherent inhumanity, it’s still apt. We’ve spent eight years swatting at Taliban and al-Qaida mosquitoes, but we still haven’t drained the swamp.
The Bush administration never committed sufficient economic and humanitarian resources to eliminate the conditions that allowed the Taliban and al-Qaida to flourish there in the first place. Promised aid never materialized — and it wouldn’t have been enough even if it did.
And militarily, of course, Bush committed the biggest unforced error in U.S. military history by invading Iraq. Bush didn’t just shift finite military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan, he squandered the developed world’s goodwill, making it politically untenable for developed democracies to commit enough troops or money to fixing Afghanistan. In marketing parlance, Bush poisoned the American brand, guaranteeing diminished interest in our policy initiatives.
Obama is essentially promising to correct Bush’s screw-up, but it’s not clear to me — or anyone, really — that he isn’t screwing up just as badly.
Obama’s trying an Iraq-like troop surge. The idea seems to be to send in more U.S. troops and modify U.S. fighting strategy to help secure the civilian population — winning hearts and minds along the way. That’s not wrong, necessarily, but it’s still not clear what the point is.
If the point is to stay in Afghanistan long enough for Afghanistan’s government to take over security responsibilities themselves, that’s gonna take decades. President Hamid Karzai’s government is corrupt and incompetent. And if that’s not bad enough, multiple reports of blatant fraud in last month’s presidential election make it plain he’s also very incompetent at being corrupt.
As much as we in the U.S. like to pat ourselves on the back for our military prowess, we’re seriously sucking. If our new goal is to secure the civilian population, why do we keep killing civilians en masse with precision-guided explosives? On Sept. 4, a U.S. airstrike allegedly aimed at two stolen fuel trucks killed 125 people — civilians mostly. You don’t win hearts and minds by removing them from people’s bodies.
The fact that this column talks as much about what Bush did wrong as it does about what Obama is doing wrong should be interpreted as an indictment of the Obama administration. I read an above-average amount of material on U.S. foreign policy and honestly have no clue what our mission in Afghanistan is, or how it might end. Nine months into his presidency, we should know.
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