Foreign Policy: The Zombie War In Afghanistan

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits an ISAF soldier camp in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Germany will begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan next year. i i

hide captionGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel visits an ISAF soldier camp in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Germany will begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan next year.

Steffen Kugler/Bundesregierung-Pool via Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits an ISAF soldier camp in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Germany will begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan next year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits an ISAF soldier camp in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Germany will begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan next year.

Steffen Kugler/Bundesregierung-Pool via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Rene Belfer Professsor of International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School. He serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies.

Perhaps you noticed the following two headlines from last week's New York Times (print edition; the online headline is different):

"U.S. Will Widen War on Militants Inside Pakistan" and "Germany Will Begin Afghan Exit Next Year."

Those two stories tell you a lot about the situation in Central Asia, especially when read in the context of the latest strategy review. Surprise, surprise: that review reaffirmed virtually all of the Obama administration's justifications for continuing the war, and offered just enough upbeat assessments to support a continued effort. At the same time, it provides just enough prophylactic pessimism to appear "realistic."

But what's missing in all this role-playing was a clear and convincing statement of costs and benefits. For all the talk of defeating al Qaeda (which isn't in Afghanistan any more), or preventing "safe havens," the administration scrupulously avoided the question of whether the money spent, lives lost, and presidential time consumed is worth it in terms of advancing core American interests. While parsing the evidence that it is making progress, the administration carefully avoids the question of whether the resources devoted to achieving something that might be defined as "success" are worth spending. Similarly, it avoids asking whether the costs of disengagement would be all that significant; it simply assumes that getting out would lead to catastrophe. So it just repeats the usual affirmations that "we must...." and "we will...." while avoiding the far more important issue of whether we should. Our German allies appear to have asked themselves that question, and come up with a different answer.

And the news that the United States intends to expand the war even further into Pakistan is especially worrisome. On the one hand, it suggests that the administration has figured out that it cannot ever win in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban have a safe haven across the border (and the tacit or active support of some key elements in the Pakistani military). But as Anatol Lieven notes in The Nation, unleashing additional violence in Pakistan could have long-term destabilizing consequences that would be far more significant than whatever ultimately happens in Afghanistan.

And it is hard not to see echoes of Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia in 1970, in a failed attempt to eradicate Viet Cong bases there. The two situations are hardly identical, but both illustrate the tendency for wars to expand in both the scope and extent of violence, especially when they aren't going well. You send more troops, but that doesn't turn things around. So you send a few more, and you widen the war to new areas. But that doesn't work either, so you decide you have to alter the rules of engagement, use more missiles, bombs, or drones, or whatever. Maybe that will work, but it's looking more and more like the strategic equivalent of the Hail Mary pass. And so we have the bizarre situation where the president who won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office has now escalated the war twice, expanded the use of drones, and now intends to widen the war in Pakistan even more.

Let's not forget that the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 also helped destabilize that country, and helped usher in the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. I'm not predicting a similar outcome here, but that example is a cruel reminder that military force is a crude instrument whose ultimate effects are difficult to anticipate in advance.

Decades from now, historians will look back and wonder how the United States allowed itself to get bogged down in a long and costly war to determine the political fate of landlocked country whose entire gross national product is about a quarter the size of the New York city budget. And when they reflect on the fact that the United States did this even after a major financial collapse and in the face of persistent budget deficits and macroeconomic imbalances, they will shake their heads in amazement.

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