Tuesday 21 Aug 2018 | 12:55 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 21 Aug 2018 | 12:55 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: What if we win?


Sam Roggeveen


25 August 2009 11:31

Richard Haass was a voice of reason in the Bush Administration and his NY Times op-ed on Afghanistan is admirably restrained about the importance of the mission. 

He gets himself into a bit of a tangle with the whole war of choice/war of necessity distinction (going to war is always a choice, since even if you are facing an enemy that would wipe out your country as an independent political identity, you can always choose surrender). But putting Afghanistan into the 'war of choice' category does ratchet down the claims made by the last Adminsitration about the 'existential threat' of terrorism.

Still, I can't help thinking Haass is too caught up in the conventional wisdom about this war to really see the consequences of his own argument. For example, he says there are alternatives to the current policy:

One would reduce our troops’ ground-combat operations and emphasize drone attacks on terrorists, the training of Afghan police officers and soldiers, development aid and diplomacy to fracture the Taliban. A more radical alternative would withdraw all United States military forces from Afghanistan and center on regional and global counterterrorism efforts and homeland security initiatives to protect ourselves from threats that might emanate from Afghanistan. Under this option, our policy toward Afghanistan would resemble the approach toward Somalia and other countries where governments are unable or unwilling to take on terrorists and the United States eschews military intervention.

Why is withdrawal 'radical'? Since police- and intelligence-led counterterrorism and homeland security are the favoured policy toward threats from Somalia and many other countries, that would seem to be the conventional approach. The nation-building effort in Afghanistan is the really radical approach — withdrawing would just bring Afghanistan into line with CT policy for other countries.
Haass then says the merits and costs of the Afghanistan operation are finely balanced:

The risk of ending our military effort in Afghanistan is that Kabul could be overrun and the government might fall. The risk of the current approach (or even one that involves dispatching another 10,000 or 20,000 American soldiers, as the president appears likely to do) is that it might produce the same result in the end, but at a higher human, military and economic cost. All of which makes Afghanistan not just a war of choice but a tough choice. My judgment is that American interests are sufficiently important, prospects for achieving limited success are sufficiently high and the risks of alternative policies are sufficiently great to proceed, for now, with Mr. Obama’s measured strategy.

The problem with this is that, although Haass recognises the possibility of failure in Afghanstan, he doesn't dwell on the consequences of success. What if the US succeeded in Afghanistan beyond all expectations? What would that do to the terrorist threat to the US? The answer, surely, is 'very little', given that al Qaeda can easily set up shop elsewhere. Even if we win the game, it's not worth the prize.