Why We Fight*

by Joshua Foust on 4/6/2008 · 30 comments

Benjamin Friedman, of the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC, thinks we shouldn’t “pull an Iraq” in Afghanistan. By that he means the West shouldn’t think the one thing Afghanistan is missing is more troops. It seems a compelling argument, and is certainly worth considering, except he seems to get some things almost comically wrong:

When it comes to military occupations, Iraq reveals that bigger isn’t always better. The heavy United States troop presence at the start of the occupation helped spark the insurgency.

It’s a strange argument to make: I haven’t read a single critique of the Iraq occupation, liberal or conservative, that has argued the U.S. had too many troops in Baghdad after the removal of the Ba’athist regime. In fact, one of the most scathing critiques of the American occupation has related to the lack of manpower to prevent the widespread looting and rioting—a situation to which then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld simply replied, “Stuff happens.”

It is a tough sell to claim Iraq proves more troops won’t help Afghanistan, as the addition of more troops in Baghdad actually has played a role in reducing the level of violence in the country. The failure of the surge is a political one, not a military one—the Iraqi government itself has failed to make any political progress once the violence ebbed a bit. There is, of course, a much bigger story behind Iraq, but Friedman doesn’t give the situation the seriousness it deserves, and doesn’t apply it to Afghanistan.

Indeed, Friedman seems driven more by the libertarian instinct toward isolationism—”One of the Bush administration’s rare achievements is the modesty of US presence and ambitions in Afghanistan”—than a practical consideration of the many reasons it made sense to invade Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. His conception of the problem as a chaotic and/or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is just off.

Defending American interests in Afghanistan requires nothing more than ensuring the absence of a haven for international terrorists and making an example of those who provide one. Those two reasonable goals justified the war in Afghanistan, unlike the Iraq war.

If the latter goal should fail, US forces can target terrorist camps and supporters through raids and airstrikes guided by intelligence, even if Taliban militias gain power in some regions. Those missions do not require a huge force structure, or that Afghanistan become a modern nation, a democratic one, or even stable.

This is the Bill Clinton approach to combatting terrorism. Much as Bush’s foreign policy deserves strong criticism for its laziness of conception and poor planning, the idea of sweeping aside the Taliban and rebuilding the country was a good one—even if it has since been starved of funding and security.

But questioning the fundamental assumptions behind the war in Afghanistan is healthy. So why do we fight there? What are the stakes?

Much as it is pleasing to say the U.S. is there for freedom, democracy, liberalism, human rights, and so on, that is no reason to militarily occupy a country. And much as the American public makes pretty noise about horrid situations in places like Darfur, there is no public support for invading to help other people. We want to end suffering, but we don’t want to sacrifice to do it. Fine, it is a simple fact that cannot be changed.

So, why Afghanistan? More specifically, why are combat troops necessary in Afghanistan?

The simple answer is that nothing else can do the job. In the discussion on PRTs, I linked to a study of PRT performance (pdf) by Marcus Gauster, which noted that the reason PRTs became such a feature of aid and development in the country was the poor security situation. Indeed, the volatility of Afghanistan that makes aid and development so difficult is what necessitates the presence of a large security force—and the areas where those forces have been inadequate are precisely the areas that have seen the largest rise in violence and Taliban influence.

In fact, the lack of an appropriate military and police in Afghanistan is a big reason it is currently teetering on the brink—and if it falls off, then those havens for terrorism that Friedman so wants to defend with a withdrawal would come right back into existence.

The biggest problem facing Afghanistan is not too much security, but too little, and of the wrong kind. The military units in play now need to be redistributed to the violent regions of the South and Southeast; at the same time a huge influx of funding and personnel must be sent into police training and anti-corruption measures. What little is in Afghanistan is being misused, and critical resources are being diverted to counterproductive measures like opium eradication rather than the sustainable (though much less glamorous) work of building up societal institutions that will eventually stabilize the country.

In other words, it isn’t that Afghanistan is too much like Iraq; but rather that it is different enough to where those lessons have a much better chance of working.

Update: Kip posts more on a point I try to drive home more and more—the failure in Afghanistan is structural, and it is international. For once, it does not appear to be conceptual. We say all the right things. We just don’t do them.

*The title of a 2005 documentary about the American military-industrial complex, as well as a series of propaganda films about why the U.S. must fight in World War II.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Fabius Maximus April 6, 2008 at 1:50 pm

I apologize for the length of this reply, but it is an important subject!

“I haven’t read a single critique of the Iraq occupation, liberal or conservative, that has argued the U.S. had too many troops in Baghdad after the removal of the Ba’athist regime.”

I believe you misinterpret Friedman. At that moment, yes. But over, say, the first six months our troops gave every indication of moving in to stay. Immediate construction of the massive “enduring bases.” Our reluctance to hold elections, and heavy role in writing long-term legislation for what appeared to be and has become an occupation.

These things likely both sparked the insurgency and diminished the legitimacy of any government we established.

“It is a tough sell to claim Iraq proves more troops won’t help Afghanistan, as the addition of more troops in Baghdad actually has played a role in reducing the level of violence in the country.”

Rather I believe that Friedman represents the trend in thinking about the surge:

“New tactics, militia cease-fires, and resettlement moved Iraqis out of harm’s way and reduced violence in Iraq in recent months. The surge in troop numbers mattered less than these factors.”

Many experts consider ethnic cleansing and the Mahdi Army cease-fire as the major factors for the decline in violence. The violence was not like a wildfire, but purposeful – and faded after those purposes were accomplished. Attributing this to the surge is both factually incorrect (there was no “surge” in number of Coalition troops), and a post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy.

The history of military interventions in foreign civil wars is both long and largely an unhappy one. Friedman – and many others – is asking for analysis supporting our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why will these differ from the most past interventions?

You say “The simple answer is that nothing else can do the job.” Friedman quite right says, almost in reply…

“The politicians and think tank experts likely to guide the next administration’s military policy seem to believe that if Americans only plan better, coordinate more, and master counter-insurgency doctrine, the country can succeed in future wars meant to build foreign governments. The public may have learned enough to change their opinion, but Washington’s hubris is essentially intact.”

Chet Richards’ new book If We Can Keep It discusses these issues in detail. I highly recommend reading it.

Joshua Foust April 6, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Thanks for the comment, Fabius.

RE: the number of troops in post-invasion Baghdad, the main problem was that the number was simply inappropriate to the mission. If, as Englehardt has argued, it was meant from the start to be an imperial action to establish a colony, then the number of troops, and their relative inaction in the face of Iraqi society’s collapse, was comically low. If, on the other hand, they were meant to be a decapitation force, then they were perhaps too many but still far too inactive. Subsequent events have shown we invaded Iraq with a long-term presence in mind, in which case I simply fail to see how so few troops could have been expected to do the job (unless you fall into the conspiracy theories that claim we’re deliberately keeping Iraq unstable to serve as a training ground and tactical think tank).

As for the appropriateness of using combat troops in Afghanistan, people like Friedman condemn their current use while using them as a stop gap to correct for any future problems. Simply declaring our right to unilaterally bomb Afghan territory if we think it becomes too terror-friendly post-withdrawal (which is the essence of his argument) is no less imperial and capricious than the claims to occupy either country for another hundred years, as John McCain has done.

For the moment, there is simply no available substitute for the military in maintaining order in Afghanistan. That it does so imperfectly is a testament to its underfunding: there are simply not enough troops to provide meaningful security in their areas.

The real failure in Afghanistan has been in the International Community. I’ve long been a critic of how aid and development work has proceeded—it’s seemed systematically designed to undercut the national government. Of a similar note, the Germans have been criminally negligent in barely funding the training of police forces (which has practically been zero for all the good it’s done). At the same time, money gets sunk into opium eradication (which also systematically undercuts support for the national government) while other, institution-building measures, such as the World Bank’s capacity building projects, or anti-corruption efforts, languish with unfunded mandates.

The other key difference between Iraq and Afghanistan? Iraq can quite easily be called a hostile occupation: most of the population opposes the U.S. presence. Survey after survey, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggests that while the typical Afghan has become disillusioned with the U.S. presence, they’d still rather live under U.S. than Taliban suzerainty. That matters a tremendous amount: normal people on the ground want us to keep the Taliban away, but they don’t trust us to. We have given them plenty of reason to think so.

But that’s precisely why a greater commitment to both security and institutional development is needed. We thought we had no obligation to rebuild Afghanistan after we helped to shatter it in the 1980s. The result was a decade of unimaginable misery resulting in the Taliban and al-Qaeda… and the attacks of September 11, 2001. We’ve seen what happens when we wash our hands and walk away, consigning them to their fate. Why would we want to repeat that? Surely the cost is too high.

Fabius Maximus April 6, 2008 at 5:15 pm

I still think you have not worked down to the inner circle here.

“Simply declaring our right to unilaterally bomb Afghan territory if we think it becomes too terror-friendly post-withdrawal … is no less imperial and capricious”

Are you saying magnitudes do not matter? A strike at explicitly hostile bases is the same as operating colonies? If so, I do not agree.

In an interconnected world we need to find some workable grey zone between absolute fidelity to the Westphalian order (states have total autonomy) and being the evil Empire.

“For the moment, there is simply no available substitute for the military in maintaining order in Afghanistan.”

Whose military? We have neither the wealth, power, or wisdom to be the world’s policeman — let alone God. Should the Tailiban rule Afghanistan? The Pashtun? Should Afghanistan exist as a unitiary entity? Perhaps we should let them sort it out.

“the Germans have been criminally negligent…”

Eh, under what law are they negligent? German law? UN law? Allah’s law, about government of the faithful by infidels? In fact, what is this obligation the Germans have to the people of Afghanistan, and what do they owe Germany in
return? Money, obedience, gratitude?

“Survey after survey … suggests that while the typical Afghan has become disillusioned with the U.S. presence, they’d still rather live under U.S. than Taliban suzerainty.”

That is nice. Wait until they get their income tax forms, legions of colonial administrators to remake their society in the image we determine best. Perhaps the survey did not ask the right question, or we did not understand their answers.

“We thought we had no obligation to rebuild Afghanistan after we helped to shatter it in the 1980s. The result was a decade of unimaginable misery resulting in the Taliban and al-Qaeda… and the attacks of September 11, 2001. We’ve seen what happens when we wash our hands and walk away, consigning them to their fate. Why would we want to repeat that? Surely the cost is too high. ”

This is a sample set of one. We have tried all forms of intervention in Africa, and the results have varied from ineffective to horrible. Why is Afghanistan different? What is the basis for belief that our intervention will have good effects, not resentment and hostility resulting in bad or worse results?

There is a large body of evidence that suggests military interventions are ineffective, as discussed above. Saying that conditions are bad and military intervention is the only alternative ignores that.

To use an analogy, this is like a pre-modern docter saying bleeding the patient is the only alternative to painful death. Now we know that doing nothing, however difficult, is the better course. The patient will have to find his own cure. We can help — aid, training. But crossing the line to armed force, shaping their society for them, probably does more harm than good.

Joshua Foust April 6, 2008 at 7:20 pm

I’m sorry, Fabius, but you’re running up against two very unavoidable dilemmas: the last time we asked the Afghans to “sort it out on their own,” the result was the Taliban and September 11. And, with the money and influence being funneled into the Taliban through sloppy policies and under-attention, the exact same conditions that created the terrorist haven for al-Qaeda will come back. Simply withdrawing combat troops because they are an imperfect solution (think the Balkans) to a wicked problem does nothing to address it, and brings with it an even higher cost: an even greater destabilizing force of international terrorism.

As for your other points: with the possible exception of Bagram (which is pretty iffy), the colonial practices of Iraq have not been repeated in Afghanistan. I question the ultimate fate of the PRT bases around the country because they inject such enormous amounts of cash and food into the local economies, but they are considered (and constructed as) temporary facilities. They’re not building massive, permanent infrastructure (like stop signs) to support the small plot of land inside the wire. They are quite unlike the massive, permanent bases in Iraq.

There are magnitudes, but right now, with troops on the ground, air strikes are actually far fewer (and casualties lower) than if we were simply lobbing cruise missiles at every training camp we thought we saw. Our intel is notoriously slow and unreliable on this front; I’m far more comfortable having troops who can, in person, survey a site and handle a security matter without calling in the 2000-lb JSOWs.

Yes, our military. The west’s military (though ISAF also has some serious structural flaws it needs to fix right away). Who else could provide order? The Taliban did nothing of the sort. The Neo-Taliban is even less capable, less institutionalized, to do so. There are various warlords who control swaths of territory, but look at what happened when people like Badcha Khan Zadran tried to take over Ghazni—there are still violent, deadly conflicts. Imposing a governmental system on such a mess, whose promise is exemplified by the peaceful protests in Jalalabad over the Danish cartoons, is far preferable.

About the Germans, I was being figurative. They have simply decided they do not need to participate in combat because they want to patrol the north. The trouble is, the North is where we don’t need combat troops, but rather an advisory force to build up local capacity—exactly the sort of thing you advocate. But that is precisely where the Germans have fallen flat. They should have been given the responsibility of building up the ANP, and they should not continue to have a continued hand in its creation. They have failed, and their soldiers on deployment have been so lazy they’ve gotten fat enough to warrant a review of their deployment conditions.

Frankly, given its history in the region, I implicitly trust the Asia Foundation surveys of Afghanistan. Their Afghan studies department used to work extremely closely with Roseann Klass, whose knowledge and insight into Afghanistan is, in my view, unquestionable. They also have the knowledge of countless expatriates and other western experts, whose views are routinely ignored by policy-makers, to offer insight. Far better than some 2-bit Gallop poll. (Search the archives here or at Afghanistanica for commentary on their methodology and analysis; this isn’t being pulled out of thin air).

A sample set of one? For someone who is really big on “lessons learned,” this surprises me. Choosing to abandon Afghanistan was a bad move, and it brought about the reason we were attacked on 9/11. Realizing that is the cost of abandoning it again, where is your argument that the price of staying is so much worse?

And your analogy is off. This is more like people freaking out over vaccinations because they think it causes autism: apart from problems of causation and non-anecdotal evidence, there is the problem of what happens should vaccination stop (and why it began in the first place).

Michael Hancock April 6, 2008 at 9:42 pm

Guys, guys, guys! Didn’t you read that delightful manga on Afghan history? If we leave little Afu alone, she’ll just get picked on by her friends!

Fabius Maximus April 6, 2008 at 9:45 pm

I understand your note about the history of Afganistan. Still, this is a sample set of one — no matter how strongly the lessons your draw from the recent history.

Your analysis ignores the large number of other interventions around the world, many with similar motives. Any forecasts should take those into consideration. The “we must act or bad things will happen” view ignores that things might work out OK — or we might make things worse. Those scenarios cannot be casually brushed aside.

Re: surveys.

Frankly, given that people are shooting at us, I explicity do not trust a survey that says the “typical Afghan person wants us to stay.” The people shooting at us obviously do not agree. And there must be substantial numbers of them, or we would not need to send even more combat troops.

Re: the medical analogy.

Military intervention cannot remotely be compared to vaccinations. Both theory and long practice show vaccines to be not only effective but fantastically cost-effective (among the most cost-effective public health measures ever discovered).

This cannot be said of military interventions. Indeed, the history of military inteventions in foreign lands suggests the opposite. it is not a pretty history.

Joshua Foust April 6, 2008 at 10:28 pm

Fabius, the problem with generalizing—especially generalizing from other situations onto Afghanistan—is that the devil is in the details. It is specifically Afghanistan’s unique recent history that makes intervention so very necessary, as it has proven that non-intervention simply does not work. I will gladly grant it is an exception to the rule of generally failed military interventions (which is not the uniform history you make it out to be), but it is very much an exception. (Afghanistanica has written a few times, quite convincingly, of the ways generalized PoliSci theories break apart in Afghanistan here and, indirectly, here; he also notes this phenomenon here).

Our motive here is quite specifically that a chaotic Afghanistan has a direct impact on American domestic security; other interventions, such as Somalia, the Balkans, East Timor, and so on, do not have that same motive.

About the surveys: the AF surveys are the absolute closest anyone has been able to come to a comprehensive survey of the country—and while they cannot, obviously, talk to everyone (the fundamental weakness of surveys, especially in war zones), they can capture the opinion of most of the people in most of the regions. And even then it is mixed, with American/Western prospects trending downward. That is why I lend them credibility; it tracks with other, anecdotal evidence (from blogs to personal correspondence) I’ve come across.

About the medical analogy: that is actually the argument I’m using here. Think of the occupation of Afghanistan today as what happens when one does not use a vaccine; dealing with the disease head-on is hideously expensive. Preventing that from occurring again is the most efficient way to handle the problem. And walking away will not prevent that; it will make it more likely, while also ruining our chance to correct any future flareups through shattered goodwill (which is already a problem there, as many Afghans distrust us because of our abandonment 19 years ago).

Péter April 7, 2008 at 2:25 pm

I agree that this point about generalised insights from “a sample set of one” isn’t valid faced with Afghanistan-specific arguments. After all, we’re talking about… Afghanistan.

Fabius, Josh is not trying to say Country X is a country where more troops and more aid could achive more results based on lessons from Afghanistan. Josh is saying Afghanistan is that country. Based on lessons from Afghanistan.

Speaking to Benjamin Friedman I’ll repeat Michael’s point: please don’t try to have little Afu’s friends sort it out for little Afu.

Fabius Maximus April 7, 2008 at 11:46 pm

“The history of military interventions in foreign civil wars is both long and largely an unhappy one.”

“the history of military interventions in foreign lands suggests the opposite. it is not a pretty history. ”

I do not think your comment that military interventions are “not the uniform history you make it out to be” well captures what I said. Very few things in history have “uniform” outcomes. I believe a majority, probably a large majority (depending on one selects the sample and defines success) are failures.

And I still see nothing explaining why military intervention has a reasonable likelihood of success. I see only assertions that it is the best choice. This absence of analysis was, of course, my initial and primary point.

Péter April 8, 2008 at 12:49 am

Well, maybe there’s some important variable that makes the difference between an intervention that’s successful and one that isn’t.

The Soviets had at the peak some 120,000 of their troops in Afghanistan and about a billion dollars in rubles in yearly aid to face a huge number of guerrillas and the fast growing amount of money being pumped into the Afghan “résistance” meme by the U.S. and (the Islamism meme by) the Saudis. Maybe that wasn’t such a good ratio, and that kind of matters. Maybe that’s why the Soviet Army leadership at one point stated that 600,000 soldiers would be necessary. (And you know, even with what they had they actually nearly beat Afghan guerrillas, but somehow those came back with new and better weapons all the time.)

And if I may have some provocative questions, you know, are China’s operations in Tibet a military intervention in a foreign land? And Russia’s in the northern Caucasus? In other words, are these operations really doomed as you say?

Ben Friedman April 8, 2008 at 2:25 am

The post above is an attempt to state the conventional wisdom I was trying to refute in my op-ed.

Since Mr. Foust says I didn’t give Iraq the seriousness it deserves in my 700 words, a longer version of my views is here:


I probably reply there to most of the points raised here. I’ll just say here that just because something like building Afghanistan seems like a worthy goal, it doesn’t mean it’s possible at a reasonable price. The idea that there is formula for these things (ie 1 soldier per 20,000 locals, blueprints from guys with Master’s degrees in Washington, PRTs, money, and elections) is hubris, or at least can-do engineering type thinking run amok. Maybe we could get this right with 50 years of state-building and the right tactics, but it’s not worth it, especially when we can achieve our limited objectives at far lower cost. We need to stop looking for 100% solutions and figure out what we can live with.

And as for the line about my libertarian instinct for isolation, I’ll just say that only in America call you be called an isolationist even as you’re supporting the continuation of a war halfway around the world. Then he says my strategy is just as imperial as his. Which is it?

Joshua Foust April 8, 2008 at 7:53 am

Fabius, Péter is touching on an important point: the war in Afghanistan in 1979 would have been over relatively quickly, had the U.S. and Saudi Arabia not flooded it with billions of dollars in high-tech weaponry. And that is despite Les Grau’s assertion in The Bear Went Over the Mountain that “The Soviets never had enough troops to win.” They had enough to win individual battles when given enough men to do so; they just didn’t have enough to hold territory (and demonstrated a puzzling instinct toward antagonizing the populace). The exact same dynamic is at play here—Lakhdar Brahimi’s much-vaunted “light footprint” strategy means we cannot do what we set out to do, which is to provide security.

Mr. Friedman, thanks for the comment. I fully understand you were arguing against what you call the conventional wisdom here, but until very recently the idea of flooding Afghanistan with more troops was actually the opposite: until the beginning of 2007, politicians and pundits were lauding the “success” of our intervention there. Claiming that a muddled drop in violence for a little bit is all we can hope for is a variation on the conventional wisdom of 2003, but it is nevertheless conventional wisdom.

And what’s wrong with conventional wisdom? In this case, what you label as such has the curious virtue of not having been tried, while the diminishing footprint you advocate has led to appalling security losses. Until 2007, the number of troops and the amount of foreign aid was steadily decreasing in the country (perhaps not coincidentally as the amount of both in Iraq rose)—which is right when there was a massive uptick in insurgent attacks.

A major question I continue to raise in this discussion has yet to be answered by either Fabius or Mr. Friedman—Afghanistan’s history suggests that withdrawal will have direct, and dire, security consequences for the U.S. and Europe. The strategy of simply bombing terrorist camps we can find failed in the 90s (and was denounced by your own think tank, with the claim it actually creates more terrorism).

So what—is CATO now suddenly in favor of bombing countries we dislike or believe may pose imminent threats? I thought that was a major part of the libertarian opposition to the war in Iraq. I don’t get it.

And I would hardly call your article support for the continuation of the war in Afghanistan. You advocate, to a large degree, a withdrawal, with the understanding that we can simply lob cruise missiles at anything we dislike in the country. That’s not exactly “continuation,” unless that is also your plan to “continue” the war in Iraq. And yes, it is just as imperial—asserting the right to unilaterally bomb a country you washed your hands of as “too difficult”—and just as interventionist as staying to erase and prevent the conditions that bred the Taliban in the first place.

Frankly, neither policy has a very good track record in a general sense. In isolation, I would agree—simply throwing missiles is far cheaper in lives and money than trying to address the base level societal issues that breed terrorists (which we helped to create through the reckless funding of splinter terrorist groups in the 80s, it is important to note). In Afghanistan, the “leave and bomb” option, however, has an appalling record of failure, namely September 11, 2001. I’d rather not tempt fate twice, thank you.

Fabius Maximus April 8, 2008 at 9:02 am

“A major question I continue to raise in this discussion has yet to be answered by either Fabius or Mr. Friedman—Afghanistan’s history suggests that withdrawal will have direct, and dire, security consequences for the U.S. and Europe”

Apologies, it was implicit in my answer. Many bad things happen in the world. Your forecast — emphasis on forecast — may be correct, but that does not mean that military force is THE answer. Or that there is an answer for us in the form of interventions to prevent States from failing.

For most of history people watched loved ones get ill, and tried desperate remedies — often expensive, often painful for the patient — in the hope that something would work. Most of those remedies were useless, many made things worse.

If van Creveld is correct, we will see more States fail during the next few generations. Since military interventions have a low success rate, we might rely on — for lack of better opportunities — simple carrot and stick “solutions.” Aid plus strikes and raids (either pre-emptive or retailiatory).

You may consider this inadequate. Life is like that.

That’s my answer. I await your analysis of why military force has reasonable odds of success in Afghanistan, at a cost we are likely to pay. That means, please, no proposals for 500,000 man western armies.

Note that the peoples of western europe have elected to slowly fade from scene, as their fertility rates drop far below replacement levels. Since they cannot bother to reproduce, they are unlkely candidates to supply substantial numbers of Foreign Legions to fight and die in strange lands. I suggest not counting on them for much help, no matter how good the cause.

Awesomeo April 8, 2008 at 9:19 am

Why is Ben Friedman even reading this blog?

Joshua Foust April 8, 2008 at 9:32 am

Fabius, but you have yet to address why Afghanistan will go a way other than it went when we last left them to their fate. Simply saying “well, bad things happen” is unacceptable from a policy and political viewpoint. No elected leader could ever get away with it.

And my point that its history makes Afghanistan an exception to the rule of intervention being insufficient is still unanswered. You simply say “maybe” and call it an assertion. What about the situation in Afghanistan allows for other parallels to interventions that failed? You have written a lot about the dangers of generalization; why the reliance on it here?

As for actual solutions, both the Afghan istan Compact of 2006 and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy lay out concrete, achievable goals for development in the country (and they avoid advocating for a 500,000-man army). The point Kip makes in the update I posted above is that, despite having these concrete, achievable goals in hand, the West has chosen to ignore them in favor of a military-heavy focus… but, and he doesn’t mention this, the military has been woefully inadequate to do the jobs it was assigned, from policeman to aid worker.

As a result, the number of troops available for actual security operations is much smaller than the ~50k number of troops would otherwise indicate; as such, it is rare for a patrol to visit the same village twice in any given six-month period. The remainder of the time, the locals are left to their own devices, which, in many areas of the country, mean predations by the Taliban and corrupt government officials.

In other words, the over-focus on security, along with its simultaneous starving of funding and resources, has created the current mess. Non-military development can and must proceed with greater emphasis and funding; but it cannot do so in the absence of security (which we have failed to provide after promising to do so). This is a systemic failure—the military segment is only a segment, but it is the segment at the beginning. I think I’ve laid out the strategic considerations behind our continued presence (though sometimes in other posts), from the drug smugglers to the terror camps; the reasons this is wrong, or the way this would be better addressed through yet another American withdrawal of support, has so far been left to the imagination.

And, Awesomeo, I don’t know—he’s clearly slumming. Why are you even reading this site?

Péter April 8, 2008 at 11:01 am

I’ll just paraphrase Fabius a little.
So when we face a cross-border insurgency from a neighbouring country, where one suspects many in the armed forces of that country give support in all sorts of ways to that cross-border insurgency, then… life is like that. Military force is not THE answer. Bad things happen. Snakes on a plane.

Actually, military force is really not the only answer, as you have to do something very smart (me I can’t say right now what it is) about that neighbouring country, too.

And no, nobody ever suggested in this debate here at Registan that 500,000 troops would be necessary in Afghanistan right now. What I for my part did mention was that the Soviet generals at one point felt like they could have done better with 600,000. And btw RAND thinks 2 soldiers are required for a successful COIN effort to every inhabitant of the area concerned, which funnily enough is in perfect agreement with the Soviet generals if you are casual with the numbers and count with 30 million Afghans… Oh, and General Dan McNeill said the other day that over 400,000 troops could be needed in his view. Then he added: “To aim for 400,000 is maybe a bit of a stretch but it should be within the ability of the NATO states to send out some more battalions.”

He said that in this interview: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,508021,00.html

But no, I haven’t suggested so many troops would be necessary, not even with the importance of the most basic, most important COIN principle of “clear, hold and build” in mind. I made the point that the insurgency’s potential matters, too, not only landmass and population size. The neo-Taliban are not shooting down a significant number of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft every week. They are not causing as many casualties as many the Soviets had to endure. There isn’t nearly a similar amount of external support behind them.

And a good COIN approach can allow much cost-effectiveness, too.

But not as much as some people tended to think so far. And so to hear now, when finally some more effort would be directed towards the Afghan theatre, this talk of let’s just let bad things happen to Afghanistan is 1) luckily out of sync with what’s going on, 2) something that makes me write all these comments when there’d be more important issues to look at.

Péter April 8, 2008 at 11:06 am

Clarification required:
“2 soldiers required to every 100 inhabitant…”
Read that part like that.

Fabius Maximus April 9, 2008 at 8:34 am

“but you have yet to address why Afghanistan will go a way other than it went when we last left them to their fate. ”

Good question!

1. Things seldom repeat like that. Afghanistan is not a clock, endlessly cycling through the same states.

2. The world is watching, and they know that allowing al Qaeda bases is no longer a fun, easy thing to do.

3. Although you do not discuss this option, aid programs might have some effect.

4. Most important, I believe that military intervention is not the default option — that we should invade everywhere there is a serious option UNLESS a case can be made otherwise. Instead the pro-combat side needs to build the case.

It is a big world, and many things happening are not to our liking. But since we cannot send troops to fight everywhere (our foreign creditors will not lend us that much money), the pro-war guys need to make a case for each intervention. I do not see one here, just repeated assertions of the need — implying that it will be successful.

Our combat soldiers have guns, not magic wands.

Joshua Foust April 9, 2008 at 4:06 pm

I don’t understand where I’m falling short here:

1) aid is (sometimes, often) effective if it can be delivered

2) the security situation is prohibiting the delivery of aid

3) therefore, the security situation must be fixed

4) aid does not necessarily fix the security situation

5) troops can provide security

6) you provide security with guns

Is there something here I’m missing? This isn’t about invading everywhere, this is about Afghanistan. And Afghanistan’s unique situation, which I outlined above, seems to indicate the need for greater troops to provide security so the underlying problems of governance and economy can be addressed. As I’ve said several times.

Fabius Maximus April 9, 2008 at 9:05 pm

Excellent summary, which gives me a basis to identify where we disagree.

1. Agree!

2. Agree!

3. “must be” — This formulation signals a logical process that might be going off the rails. I am going to die eventually. I think that “must be fixed.” Any ideas?

4. Agree.

5. Stating this as a categorical is incorrect. It is sometimes so, sometimes not so. There are many examples where foreign troops were unable to provide security within the operational and resource limits of their home governments. Like Mogadishu.

6. I am not sure if this relies on the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics (GLTG), or the assumption that guns are magic wands. As in #5, sometimes yes. Sometimes no. That is why analysis is needed.

The GLTG is one of the best-ever posts on the Internet, and essential reading for anyone interested in geopolitics. See it here:

As for Afghanistan being unique, I will grant that (is not everyplace unique?) But I do not see any analysis of why you believe force will work, within whatever limited resource you believe we should comit.

Your outline shows why this is missing: apparently you consider intervention — of some unstated scale and duration — to be certain to succeed. I see no explanation as to why this is so. It it imo not self-evidently so.

Joshua Foust April 9, 2008 at 9:50 pm

Okay, we are making progress (and doing this in two threads is a fun experience).

3) Do you really mean to write off Afghanistan as hopelessly violent and unstable, destined to be a hotbed of warring tribes and violent xenophobia? I would question how closely you’ve read its history. Afghanistan has had a turbulent relationship with its neighbors, but it has generally never been any more or less violent than anyone else. Well, it has been brutal by Western standards, but no more so than Bukhara or Isfahan in the 19th century. Especially recently, the tribal violence there is very much a creation of the wars that have raged across its soil.

In other words, there is no inherent reason why Afghanistan must be violent. Which means the root cause of violence could be addressed. And if the aid and support necessary to prevent future outbreaks of violent extremism are prevented from being delivered because of the security situation, and aid on its own doesn’t really address it, then that would mean that if we want such aid and development to arrive, we would have to address security.

5) You misunderstand me. “Troops can.” Not “troops do,” or “troops always.” Troops can. I can stand on my head. But not all the time. Just as there are many examples of foreign troops being unable to provide security, there are also many examples of foreign troops being able to do exactly that—in Afghanistan.

6) I’m thinking that I’m using too many mental shortcuts to get to this point, and that’s where this seems to fail. Let me ask you a question: how would you address the Neo-Taliban insurgency without using guns or troops? How would you create pockets of stability and prevent violent outsiders from infiltrating to cause chaos?

This is an honest question. I’m unaware of any organization that at least could address a foreign-backed insurgency apart from the military. And I’ll pre-empt what I think might be a likely response and say that referencing some Barnett-style “pistol-packing peace corps” is a non-answer. What exists today, right now, that could provide a secure environment better than the military?

So, I know that essay, and found it highly amusing. And still do. But your point about scale and duration give me pause: those don’t address the initial “why,” which I thought was the point of this. If it is a good idea but simply unattainable or impractical (which I think is what Friedman was reaching for but didn’t quite prove), that is another issue. But you’re not saying the idea of the occupation is an impractical one—now it seems you’re saying it is fundamentally flawed. The fundamental utility or appropriateness of the military is related to the duration and scale of an occupation only in the second degree—meaning, the question of whether it is a good and appropriate response comes first. Only then should its practicality be examined.

It looks like you have those two reversed.

Fabius Maximus April 9, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Lots of progress here!

“Do you really mean to write off Afghanistan as hopelessly violent and unstable, destined to be a hotbed of warring tribes and violent xenophobia?”

Exactly. If necessary.

If you can build a case for military ops, I am on board. But if not, OK. Stuff happens, despite our good will, because of limited knowledge and resources. I believe my analogy of pre-modern medicine captures the situation well — but I could be underestimating our capabilities. But the case is yours to build, not mine.

Fabius Maximus April 9, 2008 at 11:23 pm

Lots of progress here! Now we are at the core of this issue.

“Do you really mean to write off Afghanistan as hopelessly violent and unstable, destined to be a hotbed of warring tribes and violent xenophobia?”

Exactly, if necessary. Life is like that.

If you can build a case for military ops, I am on board. But if not, OK. Stuff happens, despite our good will, because of limited knowledge and resources.

I believe my analogy of pre-modern medicine captures the situation well. Perhaps I underestimate our capabilities. But the case is yours to build, not mine.

“In other words, there is no inherent reason why Afghanistan must be violent.” As a theoretical statement who can disagree?

“Which means the root cause of violence could be addressed.”

That is an assertive form of my question. Why do you believe military force can successfully address the root causes of Afghanistan’s violence? The answer does not seem obvious to me. That is the point of #5 and #6.

There are fundamental reasons why foreign combat troops seldom prove effective – speaking of long-term ground ops (not raids or strikes).

To summarize Richards’s argument, which he makes at length in If We Can Keep it, military operations by foreigners work when supporting functioning States with legitimate governments. But they seldom need foreign military intervention, except when attacked by other States. And when they do it is usually funding, training, and logistical support.

States that need foreign military assistance to fight non-State foes (internal or external) usually have low legitimacy – which is the primary problem. The outside aid often reduces the pressure for the government to address this problem.

Worse, the presence of outside troops usually exacerbates the problem by diminishing the host government’s legitimacy. The longer and larger the foreign combat presence, the more likely and more serious this effect.

If van Creveld is correct, we will see more States fail during the next few generations. Since military interventions have a low success rate, we might rely on — for lack of better opportunities — simple carrot and stick “solutions.” Aid plus strikes and raids (either pre-emptive or retaliatory).

“you address the Neo-Taliban insurgency without using guns or troops? How would you create pockets of stability and prevent violent outsiders from infiltrating to cause chaos?”

I reject these questions.

“I’m unaware of any organization that at least could address a foreign-backed insurgency apart from the military.”

Implicit in this is belief that the military can do so. History suggests that the odds of success in these projects are not promising.

The difference between us seems to be that I accept the fact that there our sharp – not distant or theoretical — limits to our wisdom and abilities. Perhaps America can live with a neo-Taliban insurgency. I do not consider the Afghanistan – Pakistan to be more than a line on a map – folks will cross it both ways and cause trouble, and there is little we can do about it. It is their problem, not ours.

The real solution to the questions you pose is to conquer and colonize the area. Unfortunately, evolution of 4GW since WWII makes that impossible – and accounts for the increased number and power of non-State entities.

This framework is incompatible with Barnett’s neo-colonialist proposal for large-scale and widespread military interventions.

Also note that the funds for this project must be borrowed from our foreign creditors, which greatly magnifies the cost to the future generations who will eventually pay. Cost seems to be frequently ignored in geopolitical reasoning. Not a good idea. As Paul Kennedy showed in the Rise and Fall of Great Powers, overspending has brought down many hegemons.

Fabius Maximus April 9, 2008 at 11:25 pm

Note: “I would question how closely you’ve read its history. ”

You are the area expert here, not me. I am listening to your case, or trying to elicit your case.

Fabius Maximus April 9, 2008 at 11:32 pm

What would I do, knowing little about the region?

Provide aid, assistance, training, advice. With low expectations for results.

If a hostile State emerges, that is OK. We can live with that. I believe in a policy of intense response to attacks. Al Qaeda are outlaws AND declared enemies of the US — and their bases can be attacked at will.

Note my comment in the FM blog about assuming that a Tailban regime regaining power likely means more 9/11 attacks. I doubt that.

Joshua Foust April 9, 2008 at 11:38 pm

I’m sorry, this could be fatigue talking, but I’m not interested in continuing this when you write off the base validity of our current effort and reject a sincere question for alternatives, then simply say, “oh well, we can live with that.”

Again: we thought we could in the 90s. You’ve given no reason why you doubt that situation would not resurrect itself, while complaining I’m not making my case. I’m afraid you’ve failed to make yours, and you leave far too many issues up to vague “I doubt” or “history indicates” assertions. Data, please. If history is a sound guide for the fallibility of military occupation, why is it not one for the consequences of our withdrawal? I would say the latter is a far more concrete possibility than vague skepticism of our attempt to rebuild Afghan society (which is not, despite your rhetoric, colonialism, considering we are attempting to replicate the fully native government that existed under Daoud before he was overthrown by the communists).

I’m tired of continuing this. If you want one way the military can achieve concrete results if it wanted to (this is avoiding the Yglesias/Green Lantern fallacy, since it exists, and has worked, but is simply ignored), I suggest reading Kip at Abu Muqawama (you posted a comment on a post I’d have chosen), who has done an excellent job of exploring the many ways we are, in fact, capable of creating an Afghanistan that is neither colonial nor vulnerable to Taliban and al-Qaeda depredations… and why the military is a vital piece of this strategy. I don’t care to paraphrase or duplicate what he’s done.

I hate to sound like I’m pulling rank (or whatever the equivalent is), but it is that paucity of knowledge about the region you admit that makes these broad generalizations about war and occupation and even counterinsurgency not applicable. My continued case is that Afghanistan is an exception. That still has not really been addressed. Simply saying “Afghanistan is not a clock” doesn’t make much sense when the same forces as before—internal and external—are at play and have not been tackled in a meaningful way… because (quite literally) of the “light footprint.”

Joshua Foust April 10, 2008 at 12:11 am

I should note here that whether I truly believe the military is capable of doing its job is somewhat outside the discussion—and may be where Fabius and I are finding disagreement. One of the many frustrations I have with the military was voiced quite ably by Dana Priest at the end of her excellent book The Mission (reviewed here). I hope everyone can allow me the luxury of quoting myself, because it seems quite relevant:

So far, we have not [kept our promises in Afghanistan]. So long as we continue to break our promises, so long as we adapt a military-first strategy to conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction (in money and actions, that is, not rhetoric), we will continue to see failure after failure. Has the current, military-centric approach resulted in a single successful mission over the last twenty years? I cannot think of any—with the possible exceptions of Panama and Grenada. The rest—Iraq I, Somalia, Bosnia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Philippines, Iraq II—are all either failures or merely qualified defeats. It is possible to do better, because we have done better—post-War Europe comes immediately to mind, which involved taking an economics-centric approach to engagment, rather than a military one. Yet, as Priest documents, these lessons have been available for decades, both in military and civilian lore, yet they continue to be ignored by those in charge. So history will repeat itself until we either stop nation-building or until we bother to prepare properly for it.

The point here is that we do have many examples of successful nation-building to draw from, including non-American ones. And while the military should play a role in these sorts of adventures, it shouldn’t play the primary role (by this I mean combat troops providing security). The problem is, in Afghanistan the approach has been security-heavy: aid has been devolved to the 90% military/10%civilian PRTs (whose limited goals are hobbled by poor security), and the overwhelming amount of money spent in the country is spent on military concerns—something locals are painfully aware of. And still, the security situation deteriorates.

In other words, while we talk a pretty game about building institutions and self-sufficiency and so on, we put the military in charge of everything, then provide them with a laughable number of troops to accomplish the many tasks with which they’re saddled. We put the troops out front, but too few, while reversing our priorities.

That is deeply frustrating. And it aptly summarizes the past two years of my posting here about the U.S. in Afghanistan. The Army does play an absolutely vital role in the country, but it is underequipped and under-manned for that role. At the same time it has been shoe-horned into other tasks for which it is not well-suited.

It is possible this later dynamic, the way in which a good idea can be mutated by politics, is what Fabius is thinking of when he says I haven’t “made my case” and draws from the history of failed interventions to argue this one will fail as well.

Just a thought.

Péter April 10, 2008 at 12:26 am

Fabius, you quoted parts of Josh’s comments for bit-by-bit reactions a little further above. This here is a part of what you came up with:

(quote from Josh:)
“you address the Neo-Taliban insurgency without using guns or troops? How would you create pockets of stability and prevent violent outsiders from infiltrating to cause chaos?”

(your reply, Fabius:)
I reject these questions.

You reject these questions? Smartest argument ever. It’s funny that this is right where you lose.

As to what would happen with the neo-Taliban in power? The US may not have a 9/11 again if you make your country 1984-ish enough, at least for incoming visitors. The oceanic shield is still kind of useful to manage that.

The case is still not so clear for Europe, though. An al-Qaida poppy kingdom in southern Afghanistan wouldn’t be much fun for us Europeans with likely increasing trends of tourism between that place and countries over here. The consequences of which the political far right in Europe will react to in predictably intelligent ways.

Oh, and your argument about training camps easily bombed is just so funny. The intel is often wrong with as many troops as there are now, but we’ll surely successfully micromanage the situation with cruise-missiles once we’re outside. And would they really need training camps for the sort of operations they’d like to carry out? Wasn’t it, to a degree, the part of a show in the late 1990s? They do have training camps in the FATA east of the Durand Line now btw, and it seems like it’s not so easy to keep those bombed. But I’d make the assertion that the training camps are more important for pseudo-regular warfare against any reincarnation of the Northern Alliance. And you can set off VBIEDs without those.

What you may be trying to get at is that, instead of a continued large presence, the northern militias could be assisted by SFs and bombs to keep the neo-Taliban (and their growing number of local allies in such a case) contained. Notwithstanding that the ANA will inevitably have to work a bit like that, with continued extensive assistance though, the militia-based version of the same scenario simply wouldn’t work.

So, my final verdict: you’re trying to rush things on the basis of a short-sighted interpretation of your interests in an interdependent world requiring a long-term approach. And you also think foreign troops can’t achieve results. Which they can, in the right numbers.

The lack of enough troops for more ideal coverage of more territory is what allows otherwise allied districts/tribal areas fall to the neo-Taliban again and again, until the neo-Taliban are chased out by troops or rather by CAS. Which tends to kill a number of people from among otherwise friendly communities.

I’ll tell you some districts’ name so you can go check: Arghandab, Panjway, Zhari, Musa Qala, Chora, Deh Rawod etc.

Fabius Maximus April 10, 2008 at 10:33 am

Whoops, my poor phrasing — as noted above.

“I reject these questions.”

I should have said: This question is a logical fallacy: the “loaded question.” The answer to the key question is assumed in the choices.

As I explained in the following text, the core issue concerns limits to our power and wisdom. The “what would you do” question assumes that we can and should do something.

Despite the interventionish logic, nothing is often the best thing to do.

Another assumption here is the minimalist-maximus presentation. The consequences of non-intervention are assumed to be worst case. The consequences of intervention are assumed to be beneign or beneficial. Costs are pretty much ignored.

This is the standard form of the pro-war argument for the Iraq War. Perhaps for all wars. Since there have been so many, I guess many folks find it compelling.

Joshua Foust April 11, 2008 at 5:35 pm

Then we’re going around in circles. I note that “doing nothing” throughout the 1990s as the same men gathered power and rampaged across the country unimpeded, you note that Afghanistan is not a clock and dismiss concerns about a similar situation developing. I ask for data or alternatives, you reject the logic behind the questions. Have it your way, but I double dare you to try to get a politician, no matter his (or her) principles or inclinations, to stay in office on a platform of “do nothing about external security threats.”

One thing I just noticed as well. You’ve written above that we can simply bomb any terror camps we don’t like once we withdraw. I also happen to know you find Tom Englehardt’s arguments against an air power-heavy conflict to be very persuasive. How would you reconcile this?

And I don’t like you claiming I apply the minimalist-maximus framework. Since I know you read my analysis here, I have to assume you’re choosing to ignore the very mixed picture I present on a consistent basis. Things are going well and things are going poorly. Lawless areas of the country will continue to be lawless should be leave (i.e. nothing will change, with the possibility that things will get worse), and if they’re funded properly, there might be regions of relative stability in the Northern and Western regions. No one denies this. But at the same time, the toxic ideology of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban will also gain a foothold. We know this will happen. Right now, it isn’t, though they are starting to make headway.

I look at the possibilities on the table and in this specific case I do see the negatives of withdrawal as vastly outweighing the negatives of an increased presence. It is not the standard form of the Iraq War justifications. As I said at your blog, I am not a Kagan. Please don’t misrepresent my argument.

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