Small Wars Journal

Have Obama and Romney Forgotten Afghanistan?

Have Obama and Romney Forgotten Afghanistan? By Dexter Filkens at The New Yorker.

... neither of them knows what to do about the place. In a mere twenty-eight months, the United States is scheduled to stop fighting, and every day brings new evidence that the Afghan state that is supposed to take over is a failing, decrepit enterprise.


One would suppose that during a war the future course of that conflict would be a major issue of political debate. As stated neither the President nor the presumptive Republican nominee have much to say about their plans in the conflict. I think the more interesting question is not whether Obama and Romney have forgotten Afghanistan but are Obama and Romney ignoring Afghanistan? If they are, and I think most people would agree that they are, then how can the American public let them? It is a sad day for the Republic when the public does not care about the wars of the nation. But who can blame the general public? Today, 16 Aug 12, a Black Hawk helicopter was lost with seven American DOD members. Thus far, it has barely been mentioned in the mainstream media. The distance of the conflict and the war weariness of the media seem to have made the sacrifices of the DOD less recognized every day. With only one percent of the population in the uniformed services the general public has less and less interface with members of the military and has become divorced from the consequences of continued warfare. The loss of the draft and the move to an all-volunteer force has allowed the nation to remain at war with little or no impact on the general population. Thus, today’s political leaders can ignore the issue of Afghanistan, much to the disaster of the future health of the American Republic.


Wed, 08/15/2012 - 12:01pm

While it may be politically harmful to discuss Afghanistan, it is a discussion that must take place. A simplistic approach would be to "declare" victory and get out.

Bill M.

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:19pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

David, I agree with you. There will be pain associated with leaving or staying in what most believe is a no win situation as we defined winning. Between the major political parties in the US I don't think there is a lot of disagreement on Afghanistan (unlike Iraq), both parties are looking for responsible ways to downsize and transition the lead to the Afghans. There are outspoken politicians on both sides of aisle that state strong views on staying or pulling out completely, but they don't represent the majority. It is time to kill the myth that most Americans don’t care, that is far from the truth. None the less the most pressing issue is the economy. We won't be a world power in the future if we don't get it fixed, so I think our leaders have the priority right for the Presidential debate, but no doubt national security will still be an issue, but I think Iran and Syria will trump Afghanistan as debate points.

What does a decisive victory look like in Afghanistan? If the argument is largely based on safe haven issue, then that argument doesn’t stand up to a logical challenge. First off AQ and other extremists have safe haven in parts of Afghanistan now, so I agree they will continue to use parts of it in the future, just as they use multiple other countries that we’re not occupying. Denying safe haven globally isn’t feasible, but disrupting their safe havens is doable. It also important to point out that a safe haven was never required to facilitate the 9/11 attacks. Their operators lived in the U.S. for months prior to conducting the attacks, and they planned part of the operation in Germany. Future attacks may come from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, or home grown Islamists, denying safe haven in one area at great expense is hardly a victor. If I’m a terrorist, I can plot in my basement (my safe haven) if you are not aware of my activities. The most important aspect of this fight is intelligence operations (both by intelligence services and law enforcement), and then special operations to disrupt their operations. Longer term efforts that address other issues do not require us to occupy a country. It is a wrongheaded approach.
I assume many will still cling to the argument we have to stay to deny safe haven, but using that logic and based on the growing instability in the Middle East and North Africa that would imply we would have to do the same in Syria, Iraq, Libya, etc. if they become so called safe havens for AQ. Our approach now based on our decade at war is to clear, hold and build and if we’re going to do that throughout the Middle East we’ll need a WWII sized army. Obviously we’re not going to do that, so it is time for some creative thinking to develop other approaches that are more sensible and effective. The reality is every man has a safe haven in their mind, if they have the idea/vision they can find a way to act. We have never denied safe haven with stability operations.
We also seem to forget that it was the USSR's occupation of Afghanistan that enabled the global jihad that in turn led to the formation of AQ. Now the West continues to fuel to that fire with our large footprint in Muslim lands providing ample material for Islamist propaganda. I suggest we lower our profile and move this conflict back into the shadows. That doesn't mean we quit fighting, it means we stop confusing nation building with counterterrorism.

Another key point is we’re not leaving Afghanistan, we're transitioning to an Afghan lead, so is losing to let the Afghans determine their own future? If Pakistan invades after the Afghans take the lead then we’re obligated to help them, but for internal issues we probably need to take two steps back.
None of this mitigates the fact that our downsizing will be painful, but the lesson in my opinion (the one we should have learned from Vietnam and Somalia) is to look/understand before you leap, and not to take ownership of other people’s problems which then makes it an intractable problem for us. Our mission was to kill AQ, after that we could have assisted the Afghans with a new future, not determine what that future would be for them, which is what we did, and then we stayed to defend it. If we stay, then we need to do something different. If we think a military victory is possible, then that means no more sanctuaries, and we know we’re not going to do that, so why stay in the lead?


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:00pm

In reply to by SWJED

This post raises far more questions than it answers and makes far more assumptions than it supports theoretically or factually. It begs the question of what a “decisive” victory would actually consist of, whether such a victory is possible, and whether it could be justified as necessary or even beneficial to US interests and security. The editor is correct that the lack of discussion on Afghanistan should be a point of dire concern, but for very different reasons that suggested here.

The post fails to define what “decisively” winning a war in Afghanistan would constitute, but I assume it to mean something like a strong Afghani state ruled from Kabul under a US friendly (or at least neutral) government. I also assume this means a Weberian type state that has a near monopoly on violence within its territorial boundaries. This is at least what our current doctrine seems to imply. (If I am wrong, I am happy to stand corrected about the ED’s intent.)

The first problem is that there is little reason to assume that such a state is even within the realm of possibilities. The Karzai government, given near unlimited power in its initial US dictated constitution, is manifestly corrupt and unlikely to instill a sense of loyalty in the general Afghani population outside of those who directly benefit from its corrupt largess. There are internal incentives for Karzai to maintain that corruption in order to remain secure in power that are more powerful than any carrots or sticks the US can apply. Further, there is a wealth of social science literature on civil war and civil conflict that indicates that even if we could follow an FM 3-24 style COIN campaign perfectly and with unlimited resources, the forces of group identity (in this case, tribal identity) paired with elite greed are sometimes far more powerful political motivators for conflict than fair provision of social service through good governance are for government loyalty and order.

Nor is it clear that such a “victory” would be necessary for the US to fulfill its own national security objectives. As Paul Staniland convincingly argues in the latest issue of Perspectives on Politics, insurgencies and civil wars can end in many forms of political settlement and political order that meet the interests of both sides short of the creation of a Weberain/Hobbesian Leviathan state. There are plenty of historical and contemporary examples of central governments reaching tacit agreements with “insurgents” in which the “insurgents” control portions of population and territory for extended periods, but agree not to cross a series of “red line” conditions that threaten the central state or its key allies. It might be possible that such an agreement could be reached with the Taliban in which they controlled the outlying provinces, allowed Karzai and his cronies to control Kabul, and excluded Al Qaeda from their territory under threat of massive and overwhelming punishment. US interests would likely be served just as well in this manner as through endless spending to prop up a corrupt Karzai state with the impossible dream of full control of Afghanistan. That may not fulfill emotional desires for “victory” against evil, but smart foreign policy is about power and security interests, not emotional satisfaction.

Even if no such arrangement is possible, the ED has the burden of showing both why Afghanistan is an especially dangerous case that requires an overwhelming victory (as opposed to other similar cases to which we have not committed so fully) and why terrorism in itself is such a serious threat that it merits such an excessive expenditure of resources.

On the first point, why is Afghanistan more serve than, say, Yemen? Alternatively, should we also undertake a full-scale commitment to Yemen? There are many other places in the world already serving as a safe haven for terrorists. Why do not all of these deserve the same attention, commitment, and resources as Afghanistan? (All of this obviously ignores the larger question of whether any of our policies may have actually motivated or exasperated the terrorism problem, a prickly subject no politician concerned about reelection will seriously touch.)

The second burden is to show why "murderous" terrorism is worth the current expenditure in resources anyway. John Mueller has convincingly demonstrated repeatedly, most recently in the summer edition of International Security, that the terrorist threat is vastly overblown. No doubt that the government ought to protect its citizens from terrorism, but the currently probability of being killed in a terrorist attack worldwide (outside of active civil wars) is less than the probability of an American drowning in his or her bathtub. As Mueller shows, using a basic risk-assessment model, for the U.S.’s current anti-terrorism expenditures to be cost effective, we would have to assume that they had prevented over 300 large-scale terrorist attacks a year. Mueller’s calculation centered on the Homeland Security budget. Given that expenditures for Afghanistan have been orders of magnitude higher, any justification for a continued presence would have to show a terrorist threat that would be orders of magnitude higher than even the absurd 330 a year to justify the cost in lives and treasure.

The fact that there is little talk about Afghanistan should be a point of concern, but for different reasons than the editor suggests. There is little discussion of Afghanistan because the American people to not care about it and because the candidates generally agree on foreign policy at the broadest level.

This should be a point of concern because it suggests that the public is so detached from the all-volunteer force and the costs of a deficit-funded war in blood and treasure that it pays little attention, allowing politicians to make absurd commitments to “long wars” with no clear and reasonably obtainable political objectives. It should be a point of concern because it suggests that we have not learned the lessons that Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq offer about the limits of force in remaking governments and societies, the tremendous power of tribalism/nationalism, and the incredible difficulty of state building. Nor have we learned the lesson that we might be best off not starting such state building wars of choice in which we install and indefinitely prop-up corrupt governments in the first place. It suggests that we still see the world through our own narrow view that assumes that the only acceptable political order is a Weberian style nation-state with a monopoly of violence over its territory and with the appearance of democratic mechanisms, and that we assume that we can force the rest of the world to follow our preferred model through wars of choice. It suggests that we still vastly overblow a serious but relatively minor terrorist threat and waste lives and resources accordingly. Worst of all, it is indicative of the Washington DC foreign policy group think in which neo-conservatives and liberal imperialists agree to blindly accept a supposed need for US global hegemony, make up dragons to destroy, and create joust with windmills in an effort to make a world that looks just like us.


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:23pm

In reply to by SWJED

I know what Dave means. This is a matter of honor, and we dishonored ourselves again. The second time in my lifetime and it breaks my heart. I've heard "no more Vietnam's" too. And I used to think that it meant we wouldn't tell people, not the big shots, the little people, that we would stand by them no matter what and not do it. But that wasn't what it meant. It didn't have anything to do with keeping your word or honor. It had to do with a sharp operators desire not to get taken. Sharp operators don't know anything about honor. They just care about not looking bad and if they are so stupid as to be Capt. Osbourne and get had for more than 10 years they can always weasel word themselves into thinking they are smart cookies when they finally bug out.

I don't give a damn for strategic judgments and all the wise words anymore. I just know we told people we would stand by them and we won't. We told them we would try and we didn't. What we did was get had by the second stupidest people on God's earth, the Pak Army, for 10 years and refuse to see it because the faces of our best and brightest would have reddened for 5 minutes. Now hundreds of thousands and maybe millions will die because we have no real backbone.

And we are all quite comfortable with that. The two candidates are. So nobody cares and nobody will.

Addendum: Check out Section VI of this article by Dexter Filkins.…

After 11 years this is what we have wrought, a combination of Catch-22 and Alice in Wonderland. What clowns we are.

gian gentile

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 8:31pm

In reply to by SWJED

So Dave what were the lessons of Vietnam as you see them?

Should we have stayed for as long as it would have taken to keep the SVN Gov from falling? In my view we would still be there in force if we wanted to achieve that goal through American military power, and we would have had to destroy the place to save it from communism.

What is your strategic recipe for Afghanistan? Staying for a long time there too until the Government is ready to stand on its own?

Time and political will are both calculations of strategy, and sometimes in limited wars of choice time runs out and there is no more political will to coninue. Are you suggesting that political and social will on the part of the american people and government must become subordinate to the operational imperatives of armed nation building (aka American coin) that demand much more time to see the thing through to success?

Shoot with your calculation of strategic logic and that the US should go "poor" in order for a decisive--austerlitz type--win in Afghanistan, if the British had applied the Dilegge doctrine to Afghanistan in 1842 they would have never left, or if we had applied it to Somalia in 1993 we would still be there too.

I dont understand why you would want the nation to go "poor" over Afghanistan.


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 8:13pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

What particular advantage do voters have in demanding both candidates address this issue- everything. The pain of leaving is indeed too high but the pain of returning - to AF - or another failed state that sponsors murderous terrorists - is more-so high. We said "no more Vietnam's" more times than I care to remember. And of course we did it again - without seriously examining and analyzing both lessons learned and those unlearned. Yes, the economy is my personal most pressing concern right now but I would "go poor" to see our Nation actually "win a war", decisively without regret or self-doubt. - Dave D.


Tue, 08/14/2012 - 5:06pm

What possible electoral advantage is there for either candidate to raise the issue of leaving Afghanistan? None.

The pain of leaving is too high and may start a debate why. Especially when a national Taliban victory is a possibility and at a minimum the Taliban could rule over much of the country where the USA and allies have paid a high price in blood.

It is the difficulty in leaving that keeps us there.