In a fantastic debate published online by the National Interest, Paul Pillar and John Nagl debate whether Afghanistan is the right war. Pillar believes not. Nagl believes it is.
Pillar believes that we have done what needed to be done in Afghanistan. We have driven out Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but that now we are surging to build up a government in Kabul. He questions the continuing need to fight against the Taliban. He also questions the argument that leaving will allow the Taliban to return, and that a resurgent Taliban will bring with it Al Qaeda.
Pillar points to the underpants bomber as a reason why we shouldn’t focus so much attention on Afghanistan. The underpants bomber wasn’t part of the central Qaeda network, he was an operative for a Qaeda franchise based in Yemen. Pillar also protests to the constant supposition in our vernacular that this is a “war” on terror, drawing attention to the word “war” as a misnomer and hindrance to our ability to successful confront and defeat a diffuse, non-state actor with numerous franchises around the world and operatives often organizing in Western cities.
Nagl believes that this is the right war and the right strategy because allowing the Taliban to return to power (a likely outcome if we were to withdraw in the near term) would lead to a renewed safe haven from which Al Qaeda could plot attacks and coordinate actions, presumably with greater ease than they currently have in tribal areas of Pakistan. Nagl is very much preoccupied with force projections problems the US military would have after with withdraw from Afghanistan, repeatedly noting the distance from any accessible coastline for the US Navy. Nagl is also a full-throated supporter of building up the current Afghan government and Afghan military to address the threat caused by the Taliban. This support clearly comes from an assumption that if the Taliban were to return to power, Al Qaeda would return to its prior safe haven. Nagl notes that in other theaters, such as Yemen, force projection is not nearly as difficult as in Afghanistan. Nagl also emphasizes that these other theaters do not featured failed states in contrast to Afghanistan.
When I read the two pieces I found myself agreeing with points made by both Pillar and Nagl. Though I’m predisposed to agree with Nagl, I came out with one big question:
What or Who are we trying to save?
What is the intent of the surge? Is it to protect America? Will it do that beyond disrupting central Qaeda HQ? McDonald’s HQ is in Des Plaines, Illinois. If we quarantined Des Plaines would that have a huge affect on the ability of McDonald’s franchisers to find customer and suppliers?
Will Afghanistan return to Taliban rule in the wake of an American withdrawal at this time? What is the human cost should the Taliban return to power? Will a Taliban reemergence necessarily mean an Al Qaeda safe haven, thus increased freedom to operate and, presumably, launch more sophisticated attacks?
What or Who are we trying to save?
I don’t believe that the surge in Afghanistan is directly tied to the current state of national security in the United States. I believe our mission is really to build up a state so we could have a presence in the country not unlike our presence in Yemen, which is to say minimal. So we aren’t trying to save America.
Maybe we’re there to protect Afghanis. Maybe the retribution and persecution of a reemerged Taliban would be so violent, so vindictive that policymakers get queasy in the stomach thinking about it. But then you must consider how many Afghan civilians have died at the hands of NATO forces. Despite the assumed benevolence of our mission, we’ve caused thousands of deaths. Also, while trying to prop up a chronically corrupt, ineffectual central government that the Taliban doesn’t recognize we encourage violent attacks simply by being present in the country. Would the Taliban really need to engage in much military activity if we weren’t there? I would think the Afghan army would provide little resistance to a Taliban advance. So we aren’t really saving Afghanis.
Perhaps we’re trying to save face in a region we only so recently misread and cast aside when we no longer had use for her. The US sponsorship of the muhajedeen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent abandonment of these fighters and what the evolved into is still fresh in the minds of US policymakers. Maybe we’re trying to not repeat our mistakes and restore or save some of the legitimacy of the US as a valuable ally in the region, but then is the Afghan government really looking to ally with the US? Does that serve a purpose for their political leadership other then patronage? Pakistan doesn’t seem to be interested in having the US as an ally. Maybe we’re trying to save some face, but if we are it would appear we are doing it the wrong way.