Critic Questions Afghan Policy Goals

Supporters of the war in Afghanistan says it is essential the U.S. creates stability in that country to prevent another 9/11-style attack. Andrew Bacevich doesn't agree. The former U.S. Army colonel, now a professor at Boston University, says there is a better way: erect and maintain robust defenses.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Even as he starts a withdrawal from Iraq, President Obama is sending fresh troops to the war in Afghanistan. Like the Bush administration, a new administration argues that it is essential to stabilize the country. The argument dismays Andrew Bacevich, a specialist in foreign policy at Boston University.

Professor ANDREW BACEVICH (Specialist in Foreign Policy, Boston University): Well, I think that that view point is based on an assumption about Afghanistan's importance to the United States that really needs to be examined and challenged.

INSKEEP: Andrew Bacevich is the author of several books on American military adventures abroad. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War. His own son went to the war in Iraq and was killed there. Bacevich knows that many critics of the Iraq War, including the commander-in-chief, support the Afghan war. He doesn't see much difference between the two.

Prof. BACEVICH: The core of the argument is one based on the notion that 9/11 happened because the United States paid insufficient attention to Afghanistan, and therefore preventing the reoccurrence of 9/11 requires us to fix Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Well, I think drawing a more specific line than that - it's not just that we ignored Afghanistan as a country, it's that Afghanistan became a specific safe haven for people who did harm to the United States, and the argument is made we don't want that to happen again.

Prof. BACEVICH: Sure, but I think what the argument overlooks is the idea that perhaps 9/11 happened because we failed to adequately defend the United States, that the federal government failed to take notice of threats, and we sort of let this thing happen. So, I mean, I understand, you know, you can go try to fix the world as one way to advert the reoccurrence of 9/11. But there is an alternative, and the alternative is to erect and maintain robust defenses.

INSKEEP: So give me a definition of U.S. interests in Afghanistan that you could support. What is the U.S. interest in Afghanistan as you see it, if any?

Prof. BACEVICH: The United States does have an interest in insuring that Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for a large number of jihadists plotting attacks against the United States.

But the question here is: What's the most cost-effective way of accomplishing that limited interest? The thinking in both the Bush administration and the Obama administration seems to suggest that in order to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a jihadist sanctuary, we have to fix the place. And I would argue that there are cheaper and more effective ways of accomplishing that limited interest, or at least there are possibilities that we should examine.

INSKEEP: I want to get to what you see as some of the other possibilities in a moment, but first to ask about the strategy that's being pursued now. Let's say that Americans decide they are willing to pay the cost in treasure and blood and years, if it takes that long, to fix Afghanistan, as you put it. Is that a goal that is achievable at any price?

Prof. BACEVICH: Don't think so. I mean, again, history does not suggest that Afghanistan is a fixable place. There have been previous great powers that have tried to impose their will on Afghanistan. They have failed. The lessons of history speak quite loudly with regard to whether or not fixing Afghanistan is a plausible proposition.

INSKEEP: Do you think that a new president, President Obama, has made the goals in Afghanistan any narrower, more achievable or more realistic?

Prof. BACEVICH: As I interpret the Obama administration's rhetoric, they've backed away from some of the really grandiose language of the Bush administration, which promised at various times to, you know, eliminate tyranny or even evil from the face of the earth. So I think that there's been a ratcheting down of the language.

Nonetheless, when we look at what the Obama administration says that it intends to accomplish in Afghanistan, the ambitions are still extraordinarily large: building up security forces, promoting economic development, creating legitimate government institutions, and those are all good things to do. There's no question about it. I just don't think they're particularly plausible or necessary. I mean, what I've argued is if we're really gung-ho to go engage in a nation-building exercise, why don't we pick a country that's really important to us? Why don't we go nation build in Mexico and eliminate corruption and drugs and fix their police and fix their public education system?

INSKEEP: You'd be more in favor of that than Afghanistan, if it came right down to a choice?

Prof. BACEVICH: You know, I think frankly, both are absurd. I don't think we can fix Mexico any more than we can fix Afghanistan. My point is that the notion that we ought to engage in this enterprise in Afghanistan is one that somehow fails to think seriously about where our interests lie and to think seriously about how much power we have available and where it can most effectively be used.

INSKEEP: Let me run something by you that was said by Richard Holbrooke, one of the administration's top people on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was asked how to define success this week, and his response was: We'll know it when we see it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I would simply say that that's a pretty unsatisfactory answer. And if, indeed, that's the - Holbrooke is a very smart and very experienced guy. If that's the best answer that our top envoy to the region can come up with, then we are in deep, deep trouble.

INSKEEP: Okay. You mentioned that there might be a different way to go, a cheaper and less risky way to go. In your view, what is it? Starting from now, the situation now. There are 58,000 U.S. troops there or almost there. There is a war going on. We are engaged. We are committed. What do you do now?

Prof. BACEVICH: Yeah. I think I would explore the possibility of providing incentives to the warlords. I mean, this is a country where the political tradition has been decentralized and real authority is exercised by warlords rather than the government in Kabul. I would explore the possibility of providing incentives to the warlords to get them to rule their little patch of Afghanistan in ways that keeps the Taliban and especially keeps al-Qaida out.

In other words, we would pay them in order to accomplish that for us. Now I wouldn't assume that warlords are trustworthy figures. I would also maintain a very comprehensive and intensive surveillance of Afghanistan so that if the warlords were trying to play us for fools, that we could, as necessary, use force on a limited and precise basis to take out any al-Qaida training camps or any sanctuaries that did develop. And I think that we could therefore accomplish our limited, satisfy our limited interests in Afghanistan without undertaking a perpetual occupation, which is what we're doing right now.

INSKEEP: Andrew Bacevich, thanks very much for the time.

Prof. BACEVICH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

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