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The Logic of Afghanistan


IB writes:

I was very pleased to see a handful of commentators politely question Hilzoy’s nostalgia for the Afghan War that could have been (but that “unserious” people understood even at the time would be a clusterfuck).

To my shame, I was more or less neutral on the Afghan War, largely because I thought that it was less stupid and destructive than what I had expected Bush to do (e.g. invade Iraq). And, I thought, at least it would put some very bad people out of business. Of course it did nothing of the sort. And then Bush went ahead and invaded Iraq.

I’m now convinced that the right position in the fall of 2001 was outright opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan. Those who opposed it then deserve a lot of credit for their intelligence and moral bravery.

I think that this position is defensible, but ultimately wrong. I wrote a while ago at the Prospect that the justification for invading Afghanistan remained sound, and I don’t think that the excellent Rohde and Sanger article in the NYT has done anything to change that. To revisit my argument:

  1. There was a reasonable security justification for the invasion. Although some may choose to believe that the Taliban would have handed over Bin Laden and shut down the Al Qaeda camps, I don’t; Al Qaeda was far too important to the Taliban’s war against the Northern Alliance (and Taliban military control more generally) for the Taliban to risk losing its support. Recall that Al Qaeda assassinated a major Northern Alliance leader in the days before September 11; that should be at least some indication that Al Qaeda and the Taliban envisioned a collaborative future. Of course, we’ll never know how things would have turned out otherwise, but I’m uncertain why I should have trusted the Taliban on this point when they really weren’t worthy of my trust on any other. We could have waited, of course, but that doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not it was sensible to invade Afghanistan; it just delays the determination by six months. Moreover, I think there was solid enough reason at the time to believe that shutting down Al Qaeda training camps would reduce the effectiveness of the organization, and I don’t see how that position has been refuted. Again, we don’t know what might have happened otherwise, but it’s difficult to envision something positive emerging from largely undamaged Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
  2. It’s certainly reasonable to argue that the Bush administration was too inept to successfully reconstruct Afghanistan, but that argument goes only so far. First, I was confidant at the time (and have not been disappointed in that expectation) that the US would receive significant international support during and after the invasion. No matter how badly the Bush administration performed, it was reasonable to believe that other countries would pick up much of the slack. This expectation has not been disappointed; Japan and numerous NATO countries operate all over Afghanistan, engaging in reconstruction and development projects and carrying out “nation-building”. Indeed, unlike the situation in Iraq, I am completely unconvinced that life in Afghanistan today is more precarious or dangerous than it was in 2001. It’s a low bar, obviously, but that’s part of the point.
  3. Regarding Bush administration ineptitude, we have to remember that the number one problem with the occupation of Afghanistan has been the invasion of Iraq. Not only did it take American resources away from Afghanistan, but it helped radicalize opposition to the United States (this is not to say that invading Afghanistan was popular in the Islamic world, but Iraq caused an order-of-magnitude shift in attitudes), and reduced the degree to which the international community was willing to support reconstruction efforts. The invasion of Iraq enabled opponents of supporting Afghani reconstruction to argue (with some merit) that such support amounted to collaboration with US behavior in Iraq.
  4. There’s also the argument that an invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration was basically foreseeable in November 2001, and that therefore it was irresponsible to support the invasion of Afghanistan. Perhaps I was just extraordinarily myopic, but I certainly didn’t foresee the invasion of Iraq after September 11, and I pay fairly close attention to international affairs. Indeed, I was uncertain that the invasion would go forward until mid 2002. Even if Iraq were foreseeable, I think that invading Afghanistan was still the right call, but I will allow that the calculus is much tighter.
  5. Finally, I am simply unwilling to agree that the invasion of Afghanistan has “failed”. The Taliban still exists, but it is much weaker now than in 2001, controls far less territory, and is considerably farther away from international recognition. Bin Laden is still alive and Al Qaeda is still active, but it chose Afghanistan in the first place for a reason; it wanted a sanctuary from which it could train, plan, and conduct operations without interference. Whatever of Al Qaeda still exists in Pakistan, it is now smaller and less capable of foreign action. Most importantly, as I note above, I am completely unconvinced that life in Afghanistan is worse now that it was in 2001, that the costs of the invasion were unacceptably high (either to the American or the Afghan people), or that the war is “lost” in the sense that the Taliban will either reclaim territorial mastery of Afghanistan or produce enduring and destructive anarchy. Afghanistan is not Iraq; civilian fatalities and infrastructure damage simply don’t compare.

All that said, I don’t think it’s “unserious” to think that the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake in retrospect, or to have thought that it was a mistake at the time. I think that those positions are wrong on both the facts and the theory, but I don’t presume to exclude them on the basis of a lack of seriousness.

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