The Case for Afghanistan: Strategic Considerations

by Joshua Foust on 8/27/2009 · 33 comments

Part 1: Introducing the Case for Afghanistan

This is part 2 of a series I’m doing to discuss the case for why Afghanistan remains a war worth fighting. The disengagement argument I am addressing is:

The war has no strategic focus or objectives. If we can’t articulate what we’re fighting for, why are we fighting?

This is actually, in my view, the most cogent and devastating argument against the Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan. It is also the growing theme I’ve been covering in how the war is being prosecuted, namely that it seems much more concerned with American personalities than with articulating and advocating a strategy for victory.

To wit: I cannot find in any public statements by President Obama or his war advisers an articulation of the strategic case for the war. President Obama wants to destroy al Qaeda and deny them a safe haven; that’s all well and good, but that’s not a strategy or rationale—it is a preferred outcome. Secretary Gates has explicitly disavowed the Bush-era goal of creating a “Central Asian Valhalla“—which again, is probably appropriate. But what’s the strategy? We have all end states and no means to get there. We have all tactical goals with no broad rationale for prosecuting an expensive and dangerous war to achieve them.

For example, if our only goal is the immediate one of denying al Qaeda the ability to operate effectively, it’s possible to argue that we don’t need to occupy and rebuild Afghanistan in order to do it (I reject the claim—asserted but never argued with evidence—that the Taliban will magically break their alliance with al Qaeda).

Indeed, devoid of any history, reducing our commitment to Afghanistan or even withdrawing from it entirely seems attractive. The problem—again, a recurring theme of this blog—is the importance of properly understanding history. The most immediate concern is that on September 10, 2001, the Taliban and al Qaeda (as described in Lawrence Wright’s excellent The Looming Tower) had a strained and fracturing relationship. Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden didn’t seem to get along terribly well, and while there was some overlap between the two groups, it was neither harmonious nor tension-free.

Since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, however, al Qaeda and the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) have become more tightly knit, with fewer internecine conflicts and fewer personality clashes at the top levels of leadership. This is, basically, typical insurgency behavior, but it also spells trouble for any talk of scaling back commitment, given the President’s preferred outcomes: despite what Michael Cohen asserted during our BloggingHeads segment, there is no evidence that the Taliban would suddenly renounce their relationship with al Qaeda should they retake the country. In fact, there is every reason to believe they will be better at both running the country and at managing their relationship with al Qaeda, since they’ve now had nearly a decade of experience of seeing what happens when they don’t.

It is possible that scaling back American influence in the country merely to that of an advisory and arms dealing role—much as the Soviet Union did post-1989—might be effective. Indeed, it very well might… for a little bit. But this is where it becomes impossible to ignore Pakistan (and not just for the shallow reason that al Qaeda is hiding in an ungoverned space in the Northwest). Pakistan has not lost its fundamental strategic rationale for supporting the original Taliban: a hedge against Iran, “strategic depth” against India, and a training ground for Kashmiri insurgents. In fact, it could be easily argued that a big reason Kashmir has calmed down is that all the crazies were too busy fighting in Miram Shah and Kandahar and Khost and Ghazni to go plant bombs in Srinagar.

And lest anyone think it is appropriate to write off the India-Pakistan conflict as somebody else’s problem, it is never somebody else’s problem when nuclear weapons are involved. As Jari Lindholm reminded, India and Pakistan have come a hair’s breadth from nuclear conflict twice over Kashmir. And like it or not, it is a compelling and vital American interest to prevent nuclear conflict in South Asia—which makes “fixing” Afghanistan in some way also a vital American interest.

Regional security is one of those topics that gets mentioned casually by many pundits but never really articulated. It is by far Ahmed Rashid’s most convincing argument, that supporting stability in Central and South Asia is a compelling interest not just for the U.S., but for the West in general.

When it comes to Pakistan, the big danger is not in a Taliban takeover, or even in the Taliban seizure of nuclear weapons—I have never believed that the ISI could be that monumentally stupid (though they are incredibly stupid for letting things get this far out of hand). The big danger, as it has been since 1999, is that insurgents, bored or underutilized in Afghanistan, will spark another confrontation between India and Pakistan, and that that confrontation will spillover into nuclear conflict. That is worth blood and treasure to prevent.

When Afghanistan was a sanctuary for destabilizing elements—whether Chechens training to go fight Russia, Juma Namangani training to go fight Tashkent, or even Osama bin Laden training his men to go fight America—the region as a whole was a serious security concern. The reason why so many books and articles condemning the Clinton administration’s stand-offish attitude have been so popular is because that message resonates—how could you not have seen this coming?

While things have undoubtedly become more violent, they are also, in a way, more ordered. The insurgency in Afghanistan is a difficult and frustrating enemy to fight, more so the insurgency in Pakistan. But both are identifiable, and are capable therefore of being defeated or delegitimized. The fact that the U.S. has chosen not to do this is the topic for another post (and the source of the tremendous frustration and borderline burnout I’ve been struggling with the last few months). But right now, the major security concerns are compelling, they are fairly clear to me at least, and I am completely baffled as to why even the war supporters cannot articulate them.

So, let us summarize the strategic goals of the Afghanistan War:

  1. A basic minimal stability in Afghanistan, such that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda is likely to develop a staging ground for international attacks, whether against neighboring countries or the United States and Europe;
  2. The permanent delegitimization of Pakistan’s insurgents, such that they can no longer push Pakistan and India toward nuclear conflict;

I find both of those convincing reasons to stay and do things right.

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This post was written by...

– 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 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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anan August 27, 2009 at 7:57 pm

I would e-mail you this offline if I had your e-mail address:

“1. A basic minimal stability in Afghanistan, such that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda is likely to develop a staging ground for international attacks, whether against neighboring countries “OF” the United States and Europe;”

“OF” should be “OR”

Good article. If India were hit with a larger than 9/11 attack, heaven help us. Ditto with any large country.

Off topic: if AQ linked networks (networks with Takfiri type extremist ideology) got WMD where do you think they are most likely to use it? My less than educated guesses would be Russia, Europe, America, India and Shia population centers. The second order possibilities might be China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Australia, maybe Indonesia.

Indonesia has been having significant success at fighting corruption and improving governance lately, and Obama is “EXTREMELY POPULAR” there; these are very negative example for muslims around the world. If an attack disrupted that, it might be good for the global extremist movement. I was struck in the most recent Pew survey by how much Indonesians were willing to do more to fight terrorism. This is one reason I think Indonesia should be asked to supply thousands of trainers for the ANP (which would improve the size and quality of MoI training through put.)

Klaus August 27, 2009 at 8:17 pm

I do not doubt the goals are valid and desirable, but it comes down to means and ends and a practical assessment of the military and political constraints of the situation.

Your fly-paper theory with regard to Kashmir terrorism seems to suggest setting up Afghanistan as a permanent jihadi lightning rod for the sakes of Pakistan and India – because the jihadis are going to keep coming as long as the US is there and the Kashmir question is unresolved – Pakistan will remain Pakistan, and Arab countries are going to pinch in too, with money and AQ recruits, no matter the state of Kashmir.

I also seriously doubt the ability of the US to solve the Kashmir conflict, which is really what you’re suggesting when you say the US should prevent nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India. You express a faith in American diplomacy that’s nearly completely at odds with field experiments, if you will.

The most likely outcome of a heavy US/NATO presence in Afghanistan the next decade or so is an unstable Central and South Asia, a propaganda boon for AQ and further destabilising homegrown terrorist attacks in Europe, serious political schisms as populations at home lose patience and turn massively against the war while the political establishment stays the course, neighbouring countries exploiting frail supply lines by squeezing NATO/US for money and political favours while trillions of dollars and thousands of lives are wasted on morally valid but practically unattainable goals.

What I mean is – you spend most of your posts attacking how ineptly the US government actually goes about its business, and then you put forward arguments in favour of staying based on military, political and diplomatic best scenarios for US handling of the situation.

M Shannon August 27, 2009 at 9:34 pm

I think Gates was confused and meant Nirvana. What Obama has is however, minus the puritanical US military rules against the consumption of liquor and sex with Valkaries, very close to Valhalla. A never ending battle (with sound track by Metalica instead of Wagner) where US warriors can battle the forces of evil until they go on leave to Thailand to return to the fray 30 days later.

M Shannon August 27, 2009 at 9:45 pm

WRT your rationale for staying in Afghanistan:

1. Impossible. The US couldn’t prevent Kingman Arizona from being “a base for terrorism”. As long as the terrorists work in squad sized groups the goal of preventing all of them from training is hopeless. For all we know some of them are joining the ANA to get 24 weeks of US government paid training and it should be obvious that the US desire to build “tribal” forces will arm and train many folks who are anti-GOA, anti-west and anti-India.

2. Fighting foreigners seems to be the sole way to unify Pashtuns. I think the NATO occupation of Afghanistan (with India increasingly in cahoots with the west) is a major recruitment factor for the very people who would attack India and a serious worry to the elements in the Pakistani government who still focus on India as the main threat.

omar August 27, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Klaus, I think the US may well pull out and leave the mess for others to solve (or not solve, as the case may be), but not because staying is itself making things worse, as you state (staying may actually make things better, but very slowly and at great cost); They may yet leave because they feel US interest is not worth the blood and treasure and India and China and Iran should spend the next 30 years sorting the place out, not the USA.
Anyway, I believe the US is not going to leave and I think one underappreciated reason they are not going to leave is because the people who are fighting the drone war have much more up their sleeves than we have seen yet, and no self-respecting officer will give up the chance to be remembered as the victors of the first drone war….that desire will overwhelm all other arguments for leaving for a certain kind of officer. Sounds silly? maybe. But I am an army brat and what I recall of military academies and messes makes me think its unthinkable that an army could leave before they fully explore what can be done with 300 drones and the most sophisticated fighting machine in the world. The temptation to try it out fully is just too great. Just a thought…

anan August 27, 2009 at 10:02 pm

KLAUS, who is advocating a “heavy US/NATO presence in Afghanistan the next decade or so”? My understanding of the current strategy is:
1) short term triage (improve short term security with partnered ANSF, NSD, ISAF operations)
2) medium term Afghan capacity building (CSTC-A, ETTs, civilian adviser surge to Afghan civilian institutions)
3) long term internationally funded economic development so that the GIRoA can pay for increased Afghan capacity long term.

Do you see indications that McChrystal wants to continue to keep large operational ISAF forces in Afghanistan for more than two years that are not advisory in nature? Abu Muqawama described it as something like 2 years of ISAF/ANSF partnered fighting, 3 years of ANSF tactical/operational overwatch, 5 years of strategic/operational overwatch. I don’t remember exactly what he said.

What do you think McChrystal’s strategy is Klaus?

Wil Robinson August 28, 2009 at 12:27 am

The problem is that we replaced the vacuum created by the fall of the Taliban government in 2002 with a military occupation, and little else. We’ve devoted $22 billion in aid toward the military (and only $16 billion toward economic development).

What we need is a true Marshall Plan for Afghanistan – one that will create natural allies and deny the Taliban the ability to recruit. This means:
1) no more unmanned air strikes
2) minimum U.S. military presence in towns and villages
3) hiring Afghans to do the reconstruction at almost all stages, instead of using private contractors
4) creating a vested interest of Afghans in the development (i.e., giving them a school isn’t enough – we need to have them build the school themselves and have some interest in protecting it).
5) an Afghan voice in reconstruction (they need to be involved in decision-making and processes)
6) an end to the “bribing warlords” strategy

There are three major institutions of violence in Afghanistan: 1) the Taliban, 2) the warlords, and 3) the foreign occupation. Finding a way to minimize any of these three would naturally dilute the ability of the other two to hold power and terrorize the civilian population.

anan August 28, 2009 at 1:46 am

Will Robinson, what military occupation are you referring to? Until late 2006, the US didn’t send many troops to Afghanistan. For that matter, US aid to the ANSF started in earnest in late 2006.

Until 2007, there was no military occupation in most of Afghanistan by the ANP, ANA or US troops. There was just “vacuum.”

“1) no more unmanned air strikes” Aren’t these in Pakistan? How common are unmanned air strikes in Afghanistan. I think that you are talking about close air support for ANSF/ISAF/OEF that have killed civilians.
“2) minimum U.S. military presence in towns and villages” Actually I disagree with this. Why do you think Afghans dislike foreigners? Historically, is there evidence for this? It is what the foreigners do that matters. The US followed your advice under Rumsfeld between 2001 and 2006.
“3) hiring Afghans to do the reconstruction at almost all stages, instead of using private contractors” I am not sure you understand what you are saying. Perhaps you should say that there needs to be substantial training of Afghans to develop the skills necessary to perform the tasks inside Afghanistan that foreigners provide . . . only the Afghan students that do well in their classes should be given these jobs. Building a trashy road using unskilled Afghan labor would be disastrous for Afghanistan . . . billions would be spent for “roads” that are not roads. How does this build Afghan capacity, Afghan self confidence or Afghan confidence in their government? Maybe it reduces Afghan capacity. Empowering sloppiness is a road to disaster.

Perhaps you meant build Afghan capacity using foreigners and hire this capacity to work on major Afghan projects alongside foreigners? One of the best way to boost the human capital of Afghans is for Afghans to work on major projects jointly with foreign talented professionals. In Pakistan and India, tens of millions of people compete madly for jobs that let them work side by side with highly capable foreigners.
“4) creating a vested interest of Afghans in the development (i.e., giving them a school isn’t enough – we need to have them build the school themselves and have some interest in protecting it).” Here you have a point. One way to do this is to condition all foreign grants on very difficult and painful Afghan reforms. Those GIRoA ministries, provincial governments and district governments that demonstrate competence get lots of foreign grants that either goes directly to them or is coordinated directly by them. Less competent Afghan institutions or local governments don’t get foreign grants . . . insurgency or no insurgency . . . local starvation or no local starvation. A good way to facilitate Afghans help themselves is to be ruthless with them.
“5) an Afghan voice in reconstruction (they need to be involved in decision-making and processes)” At the local level and many other levels they often have a voice. The problem is that voice without accountability can be worse than no voice. Hence what I wrote to your point 4. International aid choices will be based on Afghan actions. Afghan incompetence means no aid for that particular Afghan group; their aid is given to other competent Afghan groups instead. Afghans are accountable for their own fate . . . good or bad. Afghans decide their own destiny.
“6) an end to the “bribing warlords” strategy” Didn’t this end some time ago? Didn’t the GIRoA get rid of the warlords and replace them with the ANSF? Isn’t that a big part of the reason for the rise of “Taliban” violence right now? Umm, I am pretty sure that the current Petraeus/McChrystal/Karzai strategy that is going to save all of us is to “bribe warlords.” The new strategy is to negotiate with local warlords (that are sometimes called local Taliban) and bribe them to switch sides. Personally I support it. Don’t you?

Sam August 28, 2009 at 2:33 am

“A basic minimal stability in Afghanistan, such that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda is likely to develop a staging ground for international attacks, whether against neighboring countries or the United States and Europe”

Josh, what’s the connection between ‘basic stability’ in Afghanistan and al Qaeda’s ability to launch attacks?

If the aim is to prevent attacks, why not a minimalist strategy that just focuses on denying political power to the Taliban and denying a staging ground to AQ?

Why instead the maximalist strategy we currently have that insists we need to build a viable Afghan state in order to prevent future AQ attacks? Given AQ could just move to more friendly territory in such an event, why are we bothering?

David M August 28, 2009 at 9:06 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/28/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Keith August 28, 2009 at 10:10 am

I don’t think it is certain that if the US leaves the Taliban will take over. Public opinion polls, however reliable they are in Afghanistan, have repeatedly shown that the Afghans don’t particularly like the Taliban. If that’s true, won’t the Afghan population fight against any repeat of 1996-2001?

If the Afghans won’t fight against a Taliban “repeat”, how can any effort on our part help? Like a commenter above said, aren’t we just training future Taliban soldiers by training the ANSF?

Additionally, I fail to see the direct or indirect linkage between Afghanistan going Taliban and a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. There’s lots more that would have to happen before India/Pakistan go nuclear. It could happen even if we achieved all of our stated goals in Afghanistan. I think the India/Pakistan nuclear issue falls well short of justifying further invovlement in Afghanistan.

anan August 28, 2009 at 10:26 am

“won’t the Afghan population fight against any repeat of 1996-2001?” Yes, if the ANSF is funded, trained and equipped.

Keith, I think that to greatly reduce the ability of extremists to plot terrorist attacks and cause instability in other countries; a capable ANSF needs to aggressively fight them, even if over more than a decade. Even if large parts of Afghanistan remain contested between the Taliban and ANSF for over a decade, this situation would still be sufficient to deny Afghanistan as a sanctuary for causing instability in other countries by distracting the bad guys from attacking other countries.

This more limited objective should be discussed. It will also be very expensive. Maybe $250 billion over 20 years (versus $100 billion per year for ISAF right now.)

Josh Mull August 28, 2009 at 5:10 pm

1. A basic minimal stability in Afghanistan, such that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda is likely to develop a staging ground for international attacks, whether against neighboring countries or the United States and Europe;
2. The permanent delegitimization of Pakistan’s insurgents, such that they can no longer push Pakistan and India toward nuclear conflict;

You lay out an air-tight case for those objectives. The problem is you’re using “US involvement” as a stand-in for violent warfare.

You write this:

“The big danger, as it has been since 1999, is that insurgents, bored or underutilized in Afghanistan, will spark another confrontation between India and Pakistan, and that that confrontation will spillover into nuclear conflict.”

Agreed but…

“That is worth blood and treasure to prevent.”

Says who? Nuclear warfare is a bad thing because it costs so much in resources and kills a lot of people. So the solution to preventing it is what? Spending a ton of resources and killing a lot of people? That’s madness.

Why isn’t the IAEA part of the COIN process? What about the NPT? Why isn’t bolstering those institutions seen as tough on terror? Only tanks and guns and killer robot airplanes work, to take your word for it.

You’ve articulated perfectly, with evidence, why the US has reasonable and urgent national and geopolitical goals to accomplish in Afghanistan. What you haven’t done at all is justify why you have to do it by killing human beings with bombs and guns.

Blaine August 28, 2009 at 5:13 pm

A few things….

First off, I’m wondering if you could potentially link me to any decent articles about the Taliban and Al Qeada becoming closer in association with one another since 9/11. I don’t doubt that it’s ocurred necessarily, it would make sense from a strategic point of view that the two work together more and try to iron out major differences to face a much larger foreign army, but I’ve scoured the net and have yet to find anything concrete that actually lays the evidence out that this has ocurred.

Now in reagrds to article….. First off, I have to wonder if we actually have the capability to accomplish the objectives Obama and his administration wish to, regardless of troop levels. Can we honestly *eliminate* safe havens? And by what means? Does stability, a somewhat modernized infrastructure and a legitimate Government with political capital (Which is what I assume are some of our goals in Afghanistan) mean that Al Qeada or the Taliban will necessarily be any less of a threat or any less capable of launching attacks on Afghan civilians, neighboring countries or the US and Europe?

Secondly, can we hope to defeat or at the very least intensely margainalize Al Qeada and the Taliban to the point of them not being a threat to and us our interests all the while engaging in a foreign occupation that jihadis will likely see as a reinforcement of their belief that Western powers, and the United States in particular, are at war with Muslims and trying to subvert Islam by military force? I’m not saying we should base any of our strategy on what jihadis believe per se, more that I find it difficult to believe that Afghanistan and our incursions with drones into Pakistan wont be a lovely recruiting tool for jihadis for quite some time.

Thirdly, you assert that a strategic consideration we should take into account is the possibility of increased tensions between India and Pakistan if terrorists are given free reign to operate and potentially pull of a shocking attack to prod either one or the other to take aggressive action, but I wonder if “minimal stability” in Afghanistan and our strategy in Pakistan has made this possibility *less* likely than it would be otherwise (or will do so if we manage to accomplish any of our goals in the future). Considering the fight over Kashmir still wouldn’t be solved regardless, I’m not entirely convinced that our goals would affect the situation one way or the other especially considering Pakistan’s national interest in this case certainly doesn’t align with our own. How do we get them to go along with this?

anan August 28, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Josh Mull, I am not certain I understand your argument. There is a war between the GIRoA/ANSF/NSD and the Taliban. Do you think that the international community should be neutral in this, that both are equally bad?

Do you favor cutting off all international grants to the GIRoA and ANSF? If you don’t, then don’t you also favor: “Spending a ton of resources and killing a lot of people?” I am trying to understand your argument . . . not criticizing you.

Josh Mull August 28, 2009 at 5:44 pm


I don’t think the United States or the international community should remain neutral in Afghanistan, as Foust has laid out quite clearly what the interest and objectives are.

What I question is the leap from “the US should be in Afghanistan” to “the US should invade Afghanistan, occupy it, and use military violence against Afghan and Pakistani citizens.” In other words, he’s made the case for Afghanistan, but he hasn’t made the case for the War in Afghanistan.

anan August 28, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Josh, could you explain the difference? There is a war between the GIRoA/ANSF and the Taliban right now. You favor siding with the GIRoA/ANSF against the Taliban. Could you explain what is your favored means of doing this? Do you favor one of these courses of action?:
-commit to hundreds of billions in international grants to Afghanistan over two decades or more, but don’t send civilian advisers or military trainers.
-commit to hundreds of billions in international grants to Afghanistan over two decades or more, and send tens of thousands of civilian advisers . . . but don’t send military trainers
-commit to hundreds of billions in international grants to Afghanistan over two decades or more, and send tens of thousands of civilian advisers and military trainers and embedded training teams for the ANSF. But don’t send combat troops.
-commit to hundreds of billions in international grants to Afghanistan over two decades or more, and send tens of thousands of civilian advisers and military trainers; and super embed two ISAF division HQs and multiple brigade HQs in the ANSF higher level headquarters. Send special forces and combat enablers for the ANSF, but don’t send ISAF combat troops that are not embedded in the ANSF. (which I favor.)
-McChrystal and his adviser’s (the “Father of Resistance”) masterful strategy to reach that shining city on the hill that Reagan spoke of. {:LOL:} I take it that you don’t favor this strategy.

Be curious to hear other perspectives on optimal Afghan strategy too.

Josh Mull August 28, 2009 at 8:42 pm


The difference between the two is War. I question whether warfare is the most effective tool to accomplish the objective. And I don’t mean in that BS “Smart Power” sort of way, I mean any sort of projected state violence at all. That includes special forces, “military advisers,” and unmanned bombers.

The European Union is universally renowned for its diplomatic prowess, yet they are only asked for combat troops. The IAEA has all the infrastructure necessary to inspect, secure, and dismantle the nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan (and the US, Russia, Israel, China…) yet we’re only talking about preventing nuclear warfare by bombing weddings in Waziristan. We occupy Afghanistan to prevent nuclear war between Pakistan and India, yet we’re not even ASKING either country to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Why?

The question of violence as the solution is important because the point of Foust’s exercise is not to justify some abstract, theoretical intervention in Afghanistan, he’s attempting to justify what’s happening now! People are being senselessly and tragically massacred daily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that includes civilians and soldiers of all nationalities and allegiances, and even if we all agree that nuclear war between India and Pakistan is bad, or that yes, the Taliban are assholes, it still doesn’t mean that the best way to fix it is through warfare. You can call it counter-insurgency, you can call it counter-terrorism, it’s still naked military violence against a civilian population.

Why is that the only option on the table?

Again I say the case for Afghanistan has been perfectly clear, the case for the WAR in Afghanistan has not.

anan August 28, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Josh, are you a pacifist Gandhian? That is a very difficult path that very few follow. One of Gandhi’s priorities was for police to be disarmed. He said that if someone was being murdered or raped in front of a police officer, that police officers should inspire the assailant to stop by the power of their own example. He felt that police shouldn’t use violence to stop violence.

However, much more important was Gandhi’s insistence that nonviolent resistors should never have anger or hatred for any oppressor no matter how bad they were. Gandhi felt that all of us should love every bad person with all our hearts and souls. He said, it is far better to use violence than to be physically nonviolent but to have violent thoughts. His insistence on loving thy enemy was so strong, that even if every person he knew were sadistically tortured and killed in front of his eyes, he would still love the people committing the murders with all his heart and soul. This is what motivated Gandhi saying that the Jews should have committed a type of mass suicide during the holocaust.

Pacifists are rare, and deserve the greatest admiration and respect.

Josh Mull August 28, 2009 at 9:25 pm


I think you’re smart enough to know that’s not at all even remotely what I was suggesting.

anan August 28, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Josh, I wasn’t suggesting that you held any particular position. I didn’t know about you until today. My sincere apologies for any misunderstanding. 😉

I was expressing my admiration, respect and affection for Mahatma Gandhi. I think he is one of the best human beings in recent human history.

Jari Lindholm August 29, 2009 at 3:16 am

Josh Mull:

“Nuclear warfare is a bad thing because it costs so much in resources and kills a lot of people. So the solution to preventing it is what? Spending a ton of resources and killing a lot of people?”

There’s killing and there’s killing.

Here are some NRDC estimates of death tolls in a South Asian nuclear war:

Best case scenario: 2,8 million killed.

Jari Lindholm August 29, 2009 at 3:27 am


Hekmatyar is listed by the UN as an “al-Qaeda associate”. Haqqani’s close links with AQ are well known. These guys (perfect gentlemen both, I’ve met them…) would be part of the package if the “Taliban” returned to power. To give you just two examples.

For more on AQ/Taliban links, see Thomas Ruttig: The Other Side.

Blaine August 31, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Thankyou for the link Jari, I appreciate it. Ill have to read it after work.

Josh Mull August 29, 2009 at 8:36 am


You’re missing the point. I’m not saying nuclear war between India and Pakistan is a good thing, I’m asking if violence is the proper solution to preventing it.

However, if you just want to stack human corpses as a metric for determining the right course of action, I’d point out that between withering UN sanctions, US invasion/occupation, and the resulting civil war, almost 2.5 million people have died in Iraq. How does that rank in your “there’s killing and then there’s killing” scale?

Again, why is War the only tool we’re capable of conceiving here?

Jari Lindholm August 29, 2009 at 8:44 am


“Why is War the only tool we’re capable of conceiving here?”

It is not. But I believe we’re currently out of options. The patient, if you will, is on the operating table; if you didn’t intend to make him better, why did you cut him open in the first place? In short, I believe withdrawal now would have consequences far more catastrophic in terms of human life than staying. And let’s face it: it’s not like thousands upon thousands are being killed in Afghanistan every month, is it? It is a low intensity conflict that unfortunately is tying up a lot of resources, but ultimately pulling out would be far more costly.

Josh Mull August 29, 2009 at 9:02 am


Am I understanding you correctly? You say we should use violence in Afghanistan because

A) We’re already doing it and,

B) You’ve arbitrarily decided that the dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of people dying every month in real life Afghanistan is better than the hypothetical Afghanistan in your mind where thousands and thousands of people COULD BE dying every month?

I don’t believe that is a convincing argument to use violence and war in order to accomplish the stated objectives.

anan August 29, 2009 at 10:37 am

“I’d point out that between withering UN sanctions, US invasion/occupation, and the resulting civil war, almost 2.5 million people have died in Iraq. How does that rank in your “there’s killing and then there’s killing” scale?” I think you went off topic. Iraq fought a terrible civil war between 1991 and 2008 (or as many Iraqis insist 1980 and 2008.) This civil war was in part the result of Iraqi people fighting for their freedom and in part the result of neighbors mucking around inside Iraq. Saddam’s own lawyers claimed (not completely without merit) that the 400,000 or more Iraqis Saddam buried in mass graves were the result of a horrible Iraqi civil war. How did the civil war start? Khomeini decided to back the Iraqi resistance in 1979. The Iraqi civil war became so bad that Saddam felt he had no choice but to take out the sanctuaries of the Iraqi resistance in Iran; thereby causing him to invade Iran and start the Iraq/Iran war.

While you are right that the perhaps 2.5 million Iraqis died in the Iraqi civil war between 1980 and 2008 and the Iraq/Iran war that was a result of the Iraqi civil war, how could the international community have prevented that? I commend your compassion and empathy for Iraqis. It is difficult to feel the suffering of others and not want to help. The question is how to express compassion for Iraqis in action?

I don’t expect you to answer this because Iraq is off topic. Perhaps, however, you could describe what you would do if the Afghans were to elect you their president, and you had hundreds of billions of dollars in international grants pledged to you, and you had tens of thousands of foreign civilian advisers, and you had tens of thousands of international trainers and embedded training teams for the ANSF that you could coordinate.

Jari Lindholm August 29, 2009 at 11:07 am

There *is* a relevant analogy here, IMO.


I assume that you, like me, were against the Iraq war. But did you advocate a rapid troop withdrawal in 2006, at the height of the sectarian civil war? Were you of the opinion, regardless of the outcome, that instead of sending more troops the U.S. should have scaled back the mission like Casey recommended?

I’m a Surge skeptic, but just looking at the numbers I have to admit that in terms of casualties it did have a measure of success. Afghanistan at the moment is in a very similar place — except that withdrawal would mean catastrophe on a much grander scale because of the two nuclear rivals next door.

sayke August 30, 2009 at 5:41 pm

josh mull –

so you’re in favor of providing everything except military support to the GIRoA/ANSF? what are you in favor of doing, exactly?

James C September 1, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Think China, Think Oil. Its ours or its theirs. Its that simple. Don’t just look backwards, take the time to look forward. Oil is power, control the resource and you will control everything.

Old Blue September 3, 2009 at 6:56 am

We use violence (quite sparingly, actually) in Afghanistan because there are parties here who are willing to use violence, and we are committed to one of those sides. Period. To fail to acknowledge that there is a place on the political scale beyond which violence occurs, and that no amount of sweet words will adequately respond to that is ridiculously idealistic.

Insurgency is the point on that scale where the social contract breaks down and people become willing to kill to have their way. You cannot be committed to supporting one side or the other and remain neutral. You cannot deny that the potential application of violence seriously hinders any further political development until one side or the other establishes a monopoly on the use of force. This side would then be called the authority; the side which, by force of arms, has won the right to govern. The ability of that “government” to provide what we would consider as essential community services is immaterial at that point. They are the authority. Until one side or the other is the undisputed authority, having sole possession of the use of force as a legitimate actor, there is either insurgency or outright civil war.

This is an insurgency, which is the point on that human scale where non-authority violence ceases to be a criminal issue and becomes the lowest form of warfare. Make no mistake; it is warfare.

To sum up; we are decisively on the side of the GIRoA. The GIRoA is engaged in fighting an insurgency, and we are on their side. If we don’t support them militarily, they will struggle to provide that essential security piece (a basic governmental function) on a local level, what little services they provide will be assumed in some cases by the insurgents, and a state of outright civil war will erupt. We really really want and need for GIRoA to be the side that wins (maintains) that right to be the government. Our military support is essential. This is not about drones or similar toys other than, “is it a good idea to use them… do we gain more than we lose?” This is not driven by some silly nefarious goal like having a lock on the world rock supply. This is about a friendly nation who is at war with an enemy both internal and external. We help them fight; we try to push this conflict, through various means along several lines of effort (security, governance, economic development) further towards the political end of the scale, where non-state violence becomes a criminal problem rather than an issue of warfare. The military is best on the security leg of the stool, each of which is essential to a stable stool… stability.

Right now, it’s a war. You cannot half-ass your support for GIRoA. Either you do, or you don’t. There is no caveat. We are finally picking up on the non-military piece, but if you get all fluffy bunny on it now, you will just wind up with a lot of dead civilians and a really hateful regime. (And if the Taliban gain power again, they will be REALLY hateful.) If you don’t like the violence and you want to contribute, come over and do some governance work or find a way to contribute to economic development; but don’t for one minute think that all this country needs is a hug.

That is why it is a military issue; why violence is one of the clubs in our bag, and why it’s okay not to get that, as long as you’re doing something to contribute.

Gordan Browm September 9, 2009 at 11:00 pm

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