Capitol Ideas

Afghanistan: The Futile Conflict

Now in its 10th year, it could drag on a lot longer.

By From the March 2011 issue

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The war in Afghanistan, called Operation Enduring Freedom, has proved to be enduring indeed. Now in its 10th year, it could drag on a lot longer. In November's congressional elections it was hardly an issue. But if we are still mired in this futile conflict a year from now, it could become a big headache for President Obama.

He must be kicking himself because if he had pulled out soon after becoming president, claiming that this war was not benefiting the United States, his argument would surely have prevailed (over the furious objections of Max Boot and John Bolton). Obama could reasonably have said that he was elected to end these costly and unwinnable wars. But as early as 2007 he was persuaded that Afghanistan was "the war we need to win." In 2009 he sent in 30,000 additional troops. More recently, he postponed scheduled U.S. troop withdrawals. As Al Regnery wrote here last fall, Afghanistan is now Obama's Achilles' heel.

He has no good choices. If he withdraws, he will be seen as the commander in chief who first aimed for victory then settled for retreat. Withdrawal, said Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, will be viewed as "the first defeat of the most powerful military alliance in history at the hands of a small band of fanatics armed with little more than rifles and IEDs." More on Moore in a minute.

But if he digs in -- as in fact he has done -- Obama's liberal supporters may turn on him. It is literally a "no win" situation, because military victory in Afghanistan would require an enormous army of occupation and that is not going to happen. Our NATO allies are already heading for the exits.

Why are we there? "We're there because of 9/11," said the late and much admired Richard Holbrooke. "And that's a simple matter of fact." Holbrooke's title was also his mission impossible: special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He died in December of a torn aorta, but it might as well have been called a broken heart. A few months earlier he said that a "pure military victory in Afghanistan is not possible."

Killing more tribesmen will avail us nothing, and may do more harm than good. They become automatic martyrs, and Afghanistan (population approaching 30 million) has lots more tribesmen in reserve. Some no doubt are ready to become "terrorists." An increasing number of Afghans don't know what we are doing there and the same uncertainty could be attributed to more and more Americans.

Initially, we invaded Afghanistan because, in about 1996, al Qaeda set up a mountain encampment there and used it to plan the 9/11 attack. How many Afghan tribesmen ever knew about al Qaeda, or ever heard of Osama bin Laden? As we have been told many times, Afghanistan basically had no government, and it still doesn't.

After 9/11 George Bush said we wanted bin Laden "dead or alive." My guess is that he is dead, but the intelligence agencies may not want to go on the record. War planners, I suspect, would prefer bin Laden alive. If he's dead, we could claim "mission accomplished." Anyway, al Qaeda or what's left of it is said to have decamped to Pakistan, whose government is not really cooperating with us.

The Vietnam comparison still works in Obama's favor. In 1968, about 320 U.S. soldiers were killed there every week. In Afghanistan, in 2010, we suffered about 10 deaths a week. That's a big disparity, and Obama will want it to stay that way. His best option may be to keep U.S. forces in a defensive posture, the (unstated) goal being to minimize casualties. That way the war just might stay out of the headlines long enough for him to be reelected. But if the casualties keep mounting, as they have in the past two years, he could be in trouble.

One almost feels sorry for Obama because his instinct was to extricate the U.S. from these unwinnable wars. It was the one area where he at least wanted to resist the expansion of state power. In other policy areas, as we know, he actively encouraged the natural bureaucratic instinct to expand, resulting in a budget deficit that is approaching $1.5 trillion for the current year.

Since World War II, the most effective pressure in Washington has come from senior officials of government agencies, all pushing to expand their own missions and budgets. The military very much included. Take a look at Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars. He reports in detail Obama's conversations with Vice President Biden (who favors U.S. withdrawal) and with senior military officials in Washington. The Pentagon won almost every one of these "battles" with Obama. A good case can be made, incidentally, that Obama prevailed over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries because he was more committed to pulling the U.S. out of these no-win wars. But he has been unable to do so.

Here's a further comment from Charles Moore, who was once the editor of the (conservative) Daily Telegraph and since then has been writing Margaret Thatcher's biography. He asks if opponents of this war "have any conception of what a defeat would mean for the world order [and for] civil peace in every European city." Don't they see that this fight "will be seen not as a battle for control of some jagged mountains, but between values, and that if our values do not win, they will lose?"

His article ended there, and he didn't say what these values are. But the Afghan values are fairly clear. They want to get foreigners out of their country, even if they (we) are passing money around in an attempt to buy friends. Anyway, it's a good bet that we would feel the same way if strange tribesmen with a lot of hi-tech gadgets landed in the Rockies and tried to control our government.

Afghans also believe in God. I'm not sure that we do anymore.

BUT HERE IS ONE VALUE we are certainly fighting for: women's rights. Mrs. Bush, Mrs. Obama, and Mrs. Clinton have all signed on. Take a look at the Time cover story last August 9, showing a woman with part of her nose cut off. The headline read, "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan." No question mark. The victim's story "raises important questions for those working to establish this young democracy," Laura Bush wrote. "Will Afghanistan embrace and protect the rights of all people?" The New York Times agrees: "The basic civil rights of Afghans -- particularly women and girls -- cannot be up for negotiation."

Actually, they don't really have rights in most of the Muslim world. Theirs is a system based on power and force, and in such a world men indeed can easily dominate women, and do. Maybe instead we should try converting them to Christianity? (Just kidding. Even to suggest such a thing shows how far we have traveled down the road of relativism.)

It's true that America's position in the world has declined, compared to other countries. But the great mistake has been to think that this can be remedied by seeking out countries that can be treated as military targets. Launching armed crusades against selected foreign countries is a military response to a cultural problem.

A lot of people in America would like to see a revival of the West, myself very much included. But that will require a revival of religion. What caused its decline? It is poorly understood, but I believe that rising prosperity brings moral laxity in its wake. That may be the key. American elites, with their persistent negativism about the human race (trees good, people bad), have also played a role in demoralizing the middle class. The rise of Islam over the past generation is mainly a response to the decline of faith-Christianity in particular. Islam is moving into the vacuum, and dropping bombs on them won't do any good. 

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).