Failure Is Not an Option

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely. . . [I]f the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

That’s the start to Ross Douthat’s latest column. But failure is always an option. Ruling it out in advance doesn’t make success probable or even possible – it just rules out doing any kind of cost-benefit analysis of trying to achieve it. Worse, it rules out asking whether “success” actually advances our interests in the region, or actually sets them back.

Ross gives three reasons why we won’t leave: first, because we can’t “lose” to the people who attacked us on 9-11; second, because we need Afghanistan as a base to fight in Pakistan; third, because we can’t allow a “vacuum” in Afghanistan that might destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.

All the work related to actual American interests is being done by that last sentence. America has an enormous interest in preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al Qaeda or other groups who might actually use them as weapons of terror; to the extent that our presence in Afghanistan helps prevent that eventuality, you’ve got your justification right there for spending a great deal of blood and treasure. But that “to the extent” is where the real argument is: whether our presence is making things better or worse in terms of stability in Pakistan. Reverse the sign on that equation, and your whole argument blows up.

And, while I don’t want to belabor comparisons between Nixon and Obama that I’ve made before by bringing up the Cambodian incursion, the sign probably should be reversed. The Pakistani military and intelligence services bankrolled the Taliban for years. But their goal is to secure their rear, to make sure that Afghanistan does not become an ally of any potentially hostile power (the old Soviet Union once, now Iran or India) and thereby become a potential base for operations against them. Given that our war in Afghanistan is very unpopular in Pakistan, and is directly contrary to the interests of the Pakistani military, it’s not at all clear why we should assume as a given that the war serves the interest of securing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons against capture by terrorists.

I mean, think about it. The purported goal of our counterinsurgency campaign is to prop up an Afghan state capable of surviving “on its own.” But “on its own” certainly doesn’t mean “able to avoid being undermined by Pakistan,” a vastly larger and more powerful country next door with a profound interest in Afghan affairs. So what exactly does it mean?

Let’s be honest. The United States attacked Afghanistan not because we could not tolerate a failed state that played host to terrorists – Afghanistan isn’t the only one of those in the world, and it’s far from clear that the war and occupation was either necessary or sufficient to achieve that aim – nor because we were worried about Pakistan being destabilized by the Taliban next door – if anything, we were worried from the beginning that our attack would destabilize Pakistan, indeed that al Qaeda attacked us precisely because they knew we would respond, and that our response might destabilize Pakistan, finally delivering its nukes into their hands – but because al Qaeda attacked us on 9-11 and we needed to respond by destroying those who attacked us, lest we invite further attack. If we had carried the bodies of Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri out of Tora Bora, we would not now be debating how to achieve “victory” in Afghanistan; rather, we’d be talking about what policies would be most likely to prevent a recurrence of a 9-11-type attack. And, in that hypothetical scenario, even if the Taliban were still active on both sides of the Af-Pak border, I’m not at all sure that Ross would be taking the view that we should occupy Afghanistan indefinitely for the sake of stability in the region.

I think Matt Yglesias has this one right. The hope isn’t that the counterinsurgency campaign can “succeed” in the terms that have historically been set, so that we have “won” the war in Afghanistan. The hope is that we can change what we call “success” so that “winning” bears some resemblance to “the course of action that does the most to protect American security interests.” That’s a pretty cynical point of view that smacks of politics, but you know, war is politics by other means, so it’s nothing to get romantic about.