The Non Sequitur War

Occupying Afghanistan is foolish even if the country stabilizes

While liberals are in for a tough few years when it comes to economic policy following Republican gains in Congress last week, there are some reasons to be hopeful about foreign policy. The Obama administration is looking increasingly likely to dial back its commitment to Afghanistan. The new National Security Advisor, Thomas E. “Tom” Donilon, was a noted skeptic of escalation during the administration’s internal debate last year, and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who backed escalation, is expected to step down shortly. If Gates is replaced with Undersecretary of Defense Michèle A. Flournoy ’83, a counterinsurgency enthusiast, not much will change, but a more dovish pick should signal that the administration is getting ready to leave Afghanistan. And the sooner the administration starts preparing for an exit, the better.

The problem is not that the U.S. cannot win the war. I don’t know that we can’t, and we likely will not know even after it has concluded. Many assume, for example, that the 2007 troop “surge” in Iraq brought down violence there, but with so many competing factors—from the turning from al-Qaeda of Sunni tribal leaders to Moqtada al-Sadr’s unilateral ceasefire declaration—that isolating one factor and crediting it with the reduction is impossible. Years after conflict has ended, chances are we won’t have a better idea of whether American actions could or did “win” the war in Afghanistan.

However, as a critique of the war, the futility argument misses the point. Obviously, if the war cannot succeed, we should not pursue it. But there have been and will be plenty of winnable wars that are nonetheless not worth fighting. The question, then, is not whether we can win in Afghanistan. It is rather whether we should. Given its costs, it seems clear that victory is not worth our while.

Advocates for the war in Afghanistan generally present two arguments: one based on national security and one based on humanitarian concern. The former goes as follows. Afghanistan’s former government fostered a terrorist group that has repeatedly attacked the United States and its allies. Thus, the U.S. should support an alternative regime and try to root out what remnants of that terrorist group persist within Afghani borders.

The first problem with this is that very few al-Qaeda fighters remain in Afghanistan. CIA director Leon E. Panetta puts the number between 50 and 100. Many more are across the border in Pakistan, where America’s ability to act is limited at best. Still others are setting up shop in Yemen. Afghanistan, then, seems a strange place to focus our efforts against al-Qaeda. But even if the preponderance of fighters were in that country, the idea that eliminating “safe havens” will end attacks is dubious at best. The 9/11 plotters worked from an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, the London bombers were homegrown, and, last time I checked, Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair, respectively, weren’t sponsoring them. One has to conclude, then, that having a supportive government isn’t necessary for al-Qaeda to pull off attacks.


Occupying Afghanistan, then, is not the best way to prevent al-Qaeda attacks. But how much should the U.S. be spending to prevent attacks in the first place? Terrorism is horrifying, but rare. As the political scientist John E. Mueller has noted, about as many Americans are killed by terrorist attacks as by lightning strikes, deer-related accidents, and allergic reactions to peanuts. Auto accidents cause vastly more deaths. While a nuclear attack would obviously render these comparisons moot, pulling one off is difficult enough that the probability of a successful strike is quite low. As Michael A. Levi explains his book, “On Nuclear Terrorism,” building a nuclear weapon or smuggling one into the United States is exceptionally difficult. Why, then, are we spending billions of dollars a year, and occupying a country, to try to tackle this relatively minor problem, especially when there’s little sign it’s working?

A Time magazine cover story from this past summer showcases the humanitarian cause for occupation: Entitled “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” the piece features a photo of a teenage girl whose nose and ears had been cut off by Taliban affiliates. The implication is that U.S. departure will condemn the people of Afghanistan, especially its women, to the oppressive whims of the Taliban. Of course, the current situation is not exactly ideal— the girl in Time’s photo was victimized last year, not during the Taliban’s reign.

What’s more, the idea that only occupation can help Afghanistan’s people reflects a poverty of imagination. The U.S. expects to spend $115 billion in Afghanistan next year; the 2009 GDPof Afghanistan was $14 billion. It’s hard to believe that airdropping $115 billion in cash over the country, and growing its economy eightfold, wouldn’t do more to improve Afghanis’ welfare than occupying them militarily. If the government wants to aid the people of Afghanistan, it can aid them. If it wants to occupy them, it can occupy them. But let’s not pretend that the latter has much of anything to do with the former.

Whether the goal is defending American security or improving the lives of Afghans, occupying Afghanistan is a wasteful way to meet our objectives. We’d do better to begin pulling out and spending our resources in a more careful and reasoned manner.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.


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