06.10.11

Why Are We in Afghanistan?

With the initial objective of vanquishing al Qaeda largely achieved, and the latest goal of luring the Taliban into a power-sharing deal out of reach, the main reason the U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan is inertia—not logic, says Peter Beinart.

On Tuesday, according to Icasualties.org, an improvised explosive device killed Cpl. William J. Woitowicz in Afghanistan. The day before that, an IED took the life of Sgt. Joseph M. Garrison. The day before that, Chief Warrant Officers Bradley J. Gaudet and Kenneth R. White died in a helicopter crash. The day before that, Specialist Devin A. Snyder, Sgt. Christopher Roger Bell, Sgt. Joshua D. Powell, Private Robert L. Voakes Jr., and Cpl. Paul. W. Zanowick all died from hostile fire. The day before that…

What is our government telling their families about why we are still at war in Afghanistan? We invaded to vanquish al Qaeda and deny it sanctuary on Afghan soil. A decade later, al Qaeda is largely vanquished. It has not managed another attack even close to the scale of 9/11 anywhere in the world. And even the attacks it has tried to execute, such as the one by the Detroit underwear bomber, involved lone, unsophisticated individuals—a far cry from multiple, simultaneous, carefully orchestrated attacks that used to be its signature.

Even before the Arab spring, al Qaeda’s popularity had plummeted. And now its salafist ideology is not merely unpopular; it is virtually irrelevant. Revolution is sweeping the Middle East, and listening to the demonstrators, you’d hardly know al Qaeda even existed. Yes, jihadist militants might carve out a safe haven in Yemen, or some other god-forsaken part of the globe, but even if they do, they won’t inspire anyone, and they’ll be under constant pressure from the intelligence services of half the world. Al Qaeda remains “a threat,” but so does bird flu. In the hierarchy of forces that today menace the average American, it is pretty far down the list.

And in any case, we aren’t mostly fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We are mostly fighting a group of tribes and militias we call the Taliban. The Taliban sheltered al Qaeda before 9/11 and the two entities still maintain ties. So yes, if the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan it’s possible that al Qaeda would grow more active there. (Though it’s also possible that having seen how their alliance with al Qaeda got them booted from power the last time, Taliban leaders would turn on the terrorist network in order to win international acquiescence to their rule). But even if NATO forces left Afghanistan, and al Qaeda could operate in the country unmolested–except for the occasional drone attack—it’s not obvious why its remaining fighters would leave the tribal areas of Pakistan, where they already can operate unmolested—except for the occasional drone attack.

There’s a moral argument for fighting the Taliban—one of the most primitive, hateful, misogynistic movements in the world—even if it doesn’t pose much of a threat to American security. But whether because of nationalism, anger about the civilians U.S. soldiers kill, or because the people we’re fighting alongside aren’t so great themselves, most Afghans aren’t moved by this moral argument.

Al Qaeda remains “a threat,” but so does bird flu.

A Washington Post poll last December found that more than half of all Afghans wanted the U.S. and NATO to begin leaving this summer, if not earlier. And the moral argument becomes even murkier when you realize that America’s stated goal in Afghanistan is no longer to eliminate the Taliban but to lure them into a power-sharing deal.

And even if the national security and moral arguments for continuing the fight in Afghanistan were stronger, they’d still only make sense if by continuing we had a reasonable chance of achieving our goals. But whatever chance we had has been seriously undermined by, ironically enough, the killing of Osama bin Laden . Much of what happens politically in Afghanistan depends on Pakistan, whose leaders have been supporting the Taliban since they helped create it in the 1990s.

The best-case scenario, therefore, was that the U.S.-Pakistani relationship improved to the point where Islamabad turned against its former clients or at least forced them to the negotiating table. But the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is today worse than ever, in part because by killing bin Laden on Pakistani soil we have inflamed that country’s ever-present hatred for the United States. “Winning” in Afghanistan—even by the modest definition of forcing the Taliban into a power-sharing arrangement—is hard enough under any circumstances. It’s almost impossible if Pakistan doesn’t want it.

In truth, what is powering our war in Afghanistan is less logic than inertia. The military brass wants to show that its counterinsurgency theories work—and they are impressive theories developed by impressive men. But it makes no sense to pursue them, at massive financial and human cost, when the threat is modest, and when the United States risks defaulting on its debt.

The Obama White House clearly wants to leave Afghanistan, but it wants to do so without alienating the generals. And it can afford to move slowly because Afghanistan barely makes the news. Americans may no longer believe in the mission, but more important, they rarely think about it. That’s what happens when you outsource war to a small subset of Americans who are extremely patriotic and restricted by law from publicly agitating against the government they serve. How many more of our fellow citizens must die before the rest of us start agitating on their behalf?