Washington, D.C. and the American political system are spending the August recess fixated on the battle over health care reform. But at the same time we're shambling, almost entirely below the radar, on a parallel track toward a massive escalation of the American military commitment to Afghanistan, an escalation that's almost certainly unwise and definitely should not be undertaken without the examination of possible alternative courses of action. The background for this escalation is Gen. Stanley McChrystal's ongoing strategic review of policy in Afghanistan, a review expected to produce a result for 45,000 additional American soldiers as well as a large number of civilians to support a broad-spectrum counterinsurgency campaign aimed at defeating the Taliban and establishing the Afghan government's effective control over the country.
The problem with the evolving vision of the war in Afghanistan isn't a lack of clarity about whether or not we're succeeding. It's a lack of clarity about what we're doing and why we're doing it.
Such an increase would be the latest in a long series of escalations of effort. The war began in 2003 with just 15,000 western forces and now involves over 100,000. That's a lot of people, though not necessarily an unduly large number to attempt a full-scale occupation of a large, remote, and mountainous country. The right question, however, is not whether this is what McChrystal needs to accomplish his mission, but how this became the mission and why. As Lee Hamilton, former congressman, Washington wise man, and sometimes Obama eminence grise put it in a recent op-ed, we need to ask ourselves "is this type of war really the best use of American power and resources in today's world?"
Unfortunately that question was the very last sentence of Hamilton's column rather than the beginning. But the fact of the matter is that once the issue is raised it's extremely difficult to see how you can come up with the answer "yes." And what's striking about the current debate playing out within elite circles in Washington is how it strains to avoid facing the question.
Instead of a conversation about what we're hoping to achieve in Afghanistan and what would be a reasonable price to pay for it, the military and the Obama administration are engaged in an effort to define metrics for "success" in Afghanistan. According to excellent reporting on this issue in The New York Times by David Sanger, Eric Schmitt, and Thom Shanker, the goal of the process is "to measure whether the war is being won" because "[w]ithout concrete signs of progress, Mr. Obama may lack the political stock—especially among Democrats and his liberal base—to make the case for continuing the military effort or enlarging the American presence." The problem with the evolving vision of the war in Afghanistan, however, isn't a lack of clarity about whether or not we're succeeding. It's a lack of clarity about what we're doing and why we're doing it.
We initially intervened in Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to meet the Bush administration's demands that they shut down al-Qaeda camps and turn over al-Qaeda leaders. That was a perfectly good reason for going to war. But the camps are no longer operating, and as best anyone can tell Osama bin Laden and other key al-Qaeda figures are no longer in Pakistan. Helping Afghanistan form a post-Taliban government and providing humanitarian assistance to a war-ravaged country were good things to do as complements to our main military mission. But over the years we appear to have gotten the script flipped somehow, allowing the fact that we failed to capture bin Laden to transmogrify state-building from a limited adjunct to a limited war into the main rationale for an extended military campaign.
The nominal reason for this is that an ill-governed and anarchic Afghanistan "could" once again become a "safe haven" for al-Qaeda. The trouble, as Marc Lynch, director of the George Washington University Institute for Middle East Studies points out, is that even if "the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network" then al-Qaeda "could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasas, into Africa—into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments."
What's more, it's not at all clear that the presence of an ungoverned or semi-governed space even has anything to do with our exposure to terrorist attacks. The 9/11 attacks were primarily plotted in Hamburg, Germany which is considerably better-governed than Afghanistan is going to be under any foreseeable situation. Other major terrorist attacks in Britain and Spain were plotted and executed entirely in London and Madrid. At the end of the day, to mount a terrorist attack against the West you need to be in the West. You can't hijack airplanes in the Hindu Kush or find a crowded train station in Mogadishu.
None of which is to deny that the United States has some real interests or moral obligations in Afghanistan. But we have lots of interests in lots of places, and as per Hamilton's question it's important to ask how many resources it makes sense to dedicate to this one corner of the planet. One important sign that we're probably pouring too much into Afghanistan is the fact that this year's projected expenditure of $65 billion is five times Afghanistan's GDP. Rather than making then number higher, it's at least worth considering what $6 billion in bribes in lieu of military occupation might achieve in a country whose total output is only worth $12.5 billion a year. At the moment the debate over whether it makes sense to sustain this kind of enormous commitment to Afghanistan is dominated by issues like Kimberly Kagan's contention that the war is "winnable". But the real question an economically battered country that still badly needs to regain legitimacy in the Muslim world ought to be asking itself is not whether we can subdue southern and eastern Afghanistan for some period of time at some price but whether we should.
Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.