Book of Lamentations

Andrew Sullivan kindly links to a response to my post from a couple of days ago about Afghanistan.

As Danny Kaye said to Angela Lansbury in “The Court Jester”: with your permission, I’d like to go ‘round again.

I don’t know that my original post was intended to lament that there was _nothing_we could have done better in Afghanistan, but I suppose I was lamenting the fact that actually achieving our war aims looks likely to have been very hard no matter what we did.

As I recall, Joe Biden was one of the more prominent Democratic critics of the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the war in Afghanistan from fairly early on, and at one point he cornered Condoleeza Rice to accuse her of basically letting Afghanistan go back to rampant warlordism. “But that’s what the country’s always been like” she said, or something to that effect. Which is basically right. Afghanistan has never had a strong central authority. So saying that, in retrospect, we should have made nation-building our principal war aim doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Yes, succeeding at nation-building would have been a good way to keep the Taliban from coming back to power. But how often have we pulled that trick off? In places like Afghanistan? How often has anyone?

The Bush Administration policy in Afghanistan was anything but “banging away as hard as you can” – that was the policy in Iraq to some extent, but quite the opposite of our approach in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the Bush Administration was, with some sense, trying to avoid having to eat soup with a knife, precisely by empowering the kinds of unsavory local actors who were most likely to be able to fend off the Taliban, provided they were willing to do so. And we were willing to pay to make them willing.

A nation-building approach, by contrast, would have required confronting returning warlordism – making more enemies, creating more potential allies for the Taliban when and if they had the opportunity to regroup. Which is some of what we’re seeing now.

So why, precisely, should we have preferred a COIN approach from the beginning? Granted that a sensibly designed counterinsurgency plan is far preferable to “banging away as hard as you can”, given the nonetheless notably poor track record of even well-designed counternisurgency plans, why should we have defined our war aims from the beginning as requiring nation-building in Afghanistan?

Let me resort again to a hypothetical. Suppose we’d caught bin Laden, Zawahiri and Omar at Tora Bora. Decapitated al Qaeda and the Taliban. Then suppose we installed Karzai, spent a few months mopping up, and gave a stern warning to Pakistan that if they helped an al Qaeda ally come back to power in Afghanistan there would be extraordinarily serious consequences. Afghanistan would have reverted to being a failed state. But our minimal war aims would have been achieved. And why would nation-building in Afghanistan have been a key war aim, in that case?

I think the case for nation-building in Afghanistan in this hypothetical scenario would resemble a little too closely for comfort our war aims in Iraq: “draining the swamp,” “changing the culture,” and so forth. It was not enough to defeat the individual terrorists who planned the attacks; it was necessary to change the world so that such attacks could not plausibly happen again. That’s a laudable aim, but its laudability neither proves that nation-building in Afghanistan was the way to achieve it, nor that it was achievable by any practical means.

The main reason we wouldn’t have simply packed up and left after (hypothetically) taking Osama bin Laden’s scalp is not that nation-building in Afghanistan was vital to defeating al Qaeda or ending the threat of terrorism, but that, our vulnerability have been demonstrated so dramatically, our response had to be grander than that. These guys had punched a hole in the greatest city in the world, and bombed the command center for our military decisionmaking. Whether a huge military response had any plausible war aims at all, we had to have one, somewhere.

That’s why I describe the situation as a tragedy. Prudence is usually our watchword. An army is a blunt instrument; war can be ruinously expensive and leads to unpredictable consequences. But in the aftermath of 9-11, that was not adequate. But in the aftermath of 9-11, prudence really wasn’t the watchword – and couldn’t have been. We were obliged to define our aims maximally, not minimally. Which is to say: we were obliged to court failure. Anything less would have been inadequate.