I do most of my foreign policy-related posting over at Outside the Beltway but, since I strongly suspect that the particular views I’m going to express in this post would be met with considerable derision by the OTB commentariat and life is too short to submit myself to ill-treatment willingly, I’ll air these opinions here. As I’ve written before if you can’t say what you think on your own blog, where can you?
As I’ve mentioned before I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan. It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse to act or the political necessity. Clearly, some action beyond lobbing a few cruise missiles at the Al Qaeda camps there was emotionally, politically, and even strategically necessary. The problem as I see it can be summarized in two words: what then?
There were any number of alternatives. Special forces attacks (as we in fact employed). A massive and prolonged bombing campaign. Nuclear weapons. We could have melted practically anything in Afghanistan down to the bedrock had we been inclined to do so.
However, once we had invaded and removed the Taliban, NATO became the occupying power with certain responsibilities under accords to which we are signatories including the responsibility to protect the population. Failing to do so would have been a war crime. There was no shadow government waiting in the wings, no liberal opposition, almost no civil infrastructure of any kind.
Consequently, I think that invading Afghanistan was an error. An understandable error but an error. Once we had invaded Afghanistan we could have pursued a counterterrorism campaign utilizing what Ralph Peters characterized as a compact, lethal force. The belief that we were capable of mounting a Desert Storm-style massive campaign in Afghanistan has always been fatuous for logistical reasons although I recognize that many Americans, possibly even including the president, believed or may continue to believe that was an option.
We have instead pursued a program of counter-insurgency. I think that has been an error. Subsequent to the experience in Iraq, it’s an understandable error but an error nonetheless. As Pat Lang has pointed out, you can’t pursue such a program successfully with one foot out the door and that has been our posture since the very beginning.
The folly of such a program is revealed by the most recent experience with the violence and rioting following the burning of Qur’ans. As Sam Clemens once put it if you pick up a starving dog and make it prosperous it will not bite you. That is the difference between a man and a dog. We’ve done our best to make the Afghans prosperous. Clearly, they would much rather that we leave so they can go back to killing and abusing each other without whatever hindrance that we provide. The difference between us and the Taliban can be summarized succinctly: the Taliban cuts off young women’s ears and noses and leaves them for dead; we restore those noses and ears and try to heal their scars.
We aren’t perfect. We continue to support the corrupt and predatory Karzai government. Our soldiers have disrespected enemy dead. And we have burned Qur’ans.
By apologizing to Afghan President Karzai, President Obama has compounded the error. If the published reports are to be believed we have nothing to apologize for. Not only were Qur’ans being used to pass messages among prisoners (a war crime, just as hiding munitions in a mosque or using ambulances to transport soldiers would be) but the soldiers doing the burning were not, apparently, even aware that they were burning Qur’ans. Subsequent to the burning of the Qur’ans some Afghan people have rioted and killed American and NATO soldiers. It is the Afghan president who should be apologizing to us not the other way around.
I understand the impulse that lead to the president’s apology but I think it is based on the false belief that counter-insurgency can be practiced successfully in Afghanistan. You can’t correct an error by piling errors on top of other errors.
If we have strategic interests in Afghanistan, we should stay to attend to those interests and do so unapologetically. If we have no strategic interests in Afghanistan, we should leave with all due haste.
See Michael Yon for more on apologies.