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To War, or Not to War (Part 1)

March 19, 2012

New York Times columnist Bill Keller has a fantastic piece in today’s edition in which he poses five questions we ought to ask ourselves before we go to war.  Paraphrasing just a little, his questions are:

  • Is it our fight?
  • What will be the cost?
  • What are the alternatives to war?
  • Who will fight alongside us?
  • What happens after the fighting?

The formulation of the questions might vary, but it seems to me that Keller’s questions make a pretty good starting point for discussion.  For instance, I might add two questions to his list:  what are the chances of winning, and what would “winning” be?  But I’m content to put the definition of a win under “What happens after the fighting?” and I’ll go with putting the chances of winning under “What will be the cost?”

Let’s consider in order our three most recent wars and plus the two that are now on the table:  Afghanistan, Iraq II, Libya, Syria and Iran.


The first stated purpose of the invasion of Afghanistan was to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.  And President George W. Bush had declared that he would not distinguish between terrorists and regimes that sheltered them, so the second stated purpose of the invasion was to overthrow the Taliban.

Getting bin Laden was without question “our fight” – he had masterminded the 9/11 attacks, a horrendous attack on our lives, our economy, our security, our peace of mind, and ultimately on our civilization itself.  The proposition that terrorists and regimes that shelter terrorists are indistinguishable is more debatable, and it’s not so clear that overthrowing the Taliban was “our fight.”

Since the purposes of the invasion included overthrowing the sitting government, the question of what would happen after that overthrow should have given us much greater pause.  Although earlier in our history we would have been happy to install a friendly, undemocratic replacement for an unfriendly regime, democratic or not, 21st century America will not settle for that.  Success in Afghanistan therefore required installation of a government that was at least minimally democratic, respectful of basic rights, and tolerant of pluralistic differences.

But Afghanistan is not a country that can be made even minimally to meet those criteria, at least not at any cost we would be willing to pay, or in any time frame we would be willing to wait.  I readily admit that the American occupation has resulted in a wider range of improvements to Afghan life than I expected – in education, infrastructure, economy, governance.  But Afghanistan is a country where young girls are sold into marriages and are obligated by “honor” to remain in those marriages, on pain of death at the hands of their own families.  This is not a society that bears an acceptable minimum respect for basic rights.

Afghanistan is religiously fundamentalist, culturally insular, illiterate, technologically pre-modern, and handicapped by a nearly complete lack of democratic tradition and secular social institutions.  Afghanistan is not a country that can be democratized by a short-term occupation of soldiers from alien cultures.

If a successful war meant the overthrow of the Taliban, and if overthrow of the Taliban meant we became responsible for re-constituting Afghan government, then the prospects of success were next to nil, and the cost of the effort would be staggering.

The monetary cost of the war so far is well over half a trillion dollars.  American and allied military fatalities to date total more than 2,800.  Wounded and traumatized veterans number in the tens of thousands, with untold economic, psychological and medical care costs.  Estimates of civilian casualties are as high as 37,000 – although it is likely that a large majority of casualties were inflicted by the Taliban and not by American and allied forces.  And although we entered the war with the world’s good will following 9/11, our conduct of an 11-year-old war has chipped away much of that good will.

Whether the prospects of success would have been greater had we been joined in our effort by, say, Pakistan, Tajikstan, or Iran, is immaterial, since there was no chance whatever that any of them would join us.

That leaves only the question:  what was the alternative to invasion?  I have argued from the beginning that invasion was the wrong war to fight in Afghanistan; a better option was containment.  I choose the word “containment” with an intentional nod to George Kennan’s Cold War policy of containment of Soviet Communism.  Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan, and we could and should have kept them there, instead of driving them to Pakistan and undermining what stability that country enjoyed.  Our drones and cruise missiles could have picked off al Qaeda targets as we found them.  After 9/11, it was perhaps emotionally satisfying to knock the Taliban out of power, but I think we all see clearly now what price we paid for that satisfaction.

Applying Bill Keller’s five questions, I conclude that we should not have invaded Afghanistan.  Next up is Iraq, and I may surprise you with my conclusions there.

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