Letting Go

Back in early 2004, when it was already clear that the Iraq War was going poorly, I began to ask the following question: what if we had to topple Saddam Hussein? What if he was implicated in the 9-11 plot? We didn’t and he wasn’t – but what if the facts were different? What would we be doing differently? How would we be handling the war? What would be our war aims now that that goal was accomplished?

I asked the question that way because it seemed to me that the thin justification for the war allowed most commentators to evade the more troubling problem: that it wasn’t clear we had any way to win, and the poor justification for the war had little to do with that fact (we weren’t, for example, materially hampered by the fact that we had little allied support diplomatically or militarily, and the Iraqis would have resented an occupation with French and Egyptian support fully as much as they resented the American occupation with the more limited international support it had).

We’re now facing essentially that situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is being called a “war of necessity” because we could not simply suffer the attacks of 9-11 and leave it at that. A spectacularly successful attack on American soil demanded a more substantial response than a criminal investigation. The attacks on New York and Washington were acts of war. We had to respond similarly.

But, as everyone understood at the time, bombing Afghanistan wouldn’t actually eliminate the threat of terrorism (that wouldn’t eliminate al Qaeda in Afghanistan itself, and anyway Afghanistan was less important as a base for terror attacks than Hamburg or Rotterdam). We had to make war on Afghanistan, or we’d look ridiculous, and invite further, much more serious challenges. But what were our war aims?

Minimally, our war aims in Afghanistan were to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and their top henchmen. We failed in this mission, and once we failed initially our continued presence in Afghanistan does nothing to bring us closer to fulfilling it.

More substantially, our aims were to depose the Taliban regime that allied itself with al Qaeda, and make sure it did not return to power. We accomplished the first aim, but we are pretty plainly failing at the second, and it is manifestly unclear to me that we have any plausible strategy for achieving this war aim.

Maximally, our aim was to radically change the political dynamic across the region such that it was transformed into peaceful and friendly territory. No comment.

So suppose you could go back in time to 2001, knowing what we know now about the course of the war in Afghanistan. The experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade have convinced you that neither a prolonged and intensive occupation nor a relatively casual and low-footprint strategy is likely to prevent the Taliban from returning to power, at least in part of the country. We can topple them, and install a replacement, but we can’t ensure that they will not return – indeed, the odds are that they will, whatever we do. How would our behavior after 9-11 have been different, if we had that knowledge?

Presumably we would still have felt the strong need for a military response. Presumably as well, we would have considered it inadequate to invade the country, try to capture our top targets, fail to do so, and then simply leave, declaring our work done as best we could. So what would we have done differently? How would we avoid being in precisely the situation we are now in?

Obviously, not invading Iraq would have changed many things. If not invading Iraq meant we were certain to have captured our top targets, we could plausibly have simply walked out at that point. Let’s set that counterfactual aside for the moment, though, and assume that we still failed to get a confirmed capture or kill on our top targets in the al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. It’s not obvious to me that, in that case, the fundamental dynamic in Afghanistan would have been materially different from what happened in our world, unless you believe that having lots of troops in the country for a long period would have permanently changed the situation there such that the dynamic we’re now observing – the Taliban regaining strength over time on the basis of incorruptibility and Pashtun ethno-nationalism – would not have obtained, and that’s something I have a hard time believing.

This is what is meant by tragedy: when you feel compelled to do something that will only lead to pain and failure. You can talk all you want now about the need to win, and you can talk all you want now about simply declaring victory and going home, but the fact that will be plain in the first case is that we keep staying because we can’t figure out how to “win” and in the second case it will be plain that we left because we lost.

UPDATE: I should have titled this post, “I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On.”