Afghanistan: The Senseless War

With the impending escalation in Afghanistan, we have finally arrived, after decades, at a bipartisan foreign policy. Regrettably, it is the wrong consensus for the wrong policy.

Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. There is no way to win in Afghanistan without a massive commitment of troops, a willingness to stay there nearly indefinitely, and the ability to pursue insurgents across the country's porous borders. 

We have neither the military capacity nor the political will to do any of that. Indeed, we probably do not even have the financial capability to do it.

What we can do is prolong the war and increase the misery of the Afghan people. As in Vietnam, this is now a war where domestic politics strongly influence military decisions. The president waits for months to make a decision on troop reinforcements. He sends fewer troops than requested. The escalation offends his base, so the president attempts to placate them with an arbitrary withdrawal date.

Caught in the escalating crossfire, Afghan civilians will have one motivation: survival. In Vietnam, villages often split, with one side going to the Viet Cong and the other to the government -- with both sides looking out for the interests of the village and each other.

A withdrawal date tells the civilian population that the Taliban will be there long after we are gone. All the Taliban has to do is to follow the grand strategy of all insurgencies: buy time. The Taliban disappears into the sea of the civilian population. The Taliban hides and waits. It yields land for time. It fights selectively. It evaporates when outnumbered. It reduces its operations. It lingers to fight another day -- when the Americans will be gone, when the poorly trained, corrupt, and easily infiltrated Afghan army will be the primary enemy.  

Afghanistan's army needs nearly a quarter of a million troops to fight the insurgency, and by most estimates, it will be lucky to produce 140,000. The fighting-age population in third-world countries is not sufficiently healthy to produce as high a proportion of troops as first-world countries take for granted. And because insurgents generally choose the time and place of engagements, they need fewer troops and require a lower support-to-combat ratio. By traditional gauges, a traditional army must outnumber an insurgency by twelve- to fifteen-to-one

Certainly, we will have military victories. In Vietnam, we never lost a major military engagement. During the Tet Offensive, we wiped out the fighting capacity of the Viet Cong, inflicting one of the worst military defeats on an enemy in the history of combat. The Viet Cong was replaced by the regular army of North Vietnam, and the war shifted to a conventional one. But we were incapable of creating a legitimate, widely supported government. So even Tet was a pyrrhic victory, and then, of course, our media turned it into a defeat, a turning point in the war created by definition.    

Our very presence in Vietnam as foreigners propping up a regime raised questions of that regime's legitimacy, as it now does in Afghanistan. We make much of elections in Afghanistan, but the proportion voting in many provinces was negligible, as was the integrity of the election process itself.  

The reality of Afghanistan is that it is not a necessary war.  The Taliban did not orchestrate the events of 9/11. Osama bin Laden did, and he is most likely in Pakistan, moving back and forth across the border, safely hidden in the tribal areas. If we seriously want to defeat the Taliban, we must escalate the war, commit to staying there, and change the rules of engagement regarding civilian casualties. And then what? We will have so alienated the population that they will produce another insurgency, one sustained by Islamists across the world who cannot countenance the presence of infidels on Muslim soil.

If we are concerned about our own security, then we might want to look at the Islamist training bases on American soil, the probes by terrorists of our air safety, and the vulnerabilities this administration has created by redefining terrorism as a criminal justice issue.

American security doctrine has always used World War II as the paradigm to justify the projection of power. What we have forgotten is that in World War II, we bombed our enemies into oblivion and then rebuilt their societies on our terms. We do not have the legitimacy or the moral justification to follow that model in Afghanistan. We certainly do not have the political will. 

There is nothing patriotic about sending our young men and women to die in a war that will be fought in the absence of compelling military considerations, a war without resolution, a war where success eludes definition, and a war where the enemy and civilian population already know when we will be gone. 

Bring the troops home. There is much to do here to promote our own security, beginning with not further debasing our economic strength by spending money on needless wars.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.
With the impending escalation in Afghanistan, we have finally arrived, after decades, at a bipartisan foreign policy. Regrettably, it is the wrong consensus for the wrong policy.

Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. There is no way to win in Afghanistan without a massive commitment of troops, a willingness to stay there nearly indefinitely, and the ability to pursue insurgents across the country's porous borders. 

We have neither the military capacity nor the political will to do any of that. Indeed, we probably do not even have the financial capability to do it.

What we can do is prolong the war and increase the misery of the Afghan people. As in Vietnam, this is now a war where domestic politics strongly influence military decisions. The president waits for months to make a decision on troop reinforcements. He sends fewer troops than requested. The escalation offends his base, so the president attempts to placate them with an arbitrary withdrawal date.

Caught in the escalating crossfire, Afghan civilians will have one motivation: survival. In Vietnam, villages often split, with one side going to the Viet Cong and the other to the government -- with both sides looking out for the interests of the village and each other.

A withdrawal date tells the civilian population that the Taliban will be there long after we are gone. All the Taliban has to do is to follow the grand strategy of all insurgencies: buy time. The Taliban disappears into the sea of the civilian population. The Taliban hides and waits. It yields land for time. It fights selectively. It evaporates when outnumbered. It reduces its operations. It lingers to fight another day -- when the Americans will be gone, when the poorly trained, corrupt, and easily infiltrated Afghan army will be the primary enemy.  

Afghanistan's army needs nearly a quarter of a million troops to fight the insurgency, and by most estimates, it will be lucky to produce 140,000. The fighting-age population in third-world countries is not sufficiently healthy to produce as high a proportion of troops as first-world countries take for granted. And because insurgents generally choose the time and place of engagements, they need fewer troops and require a lower support-to-combat ratio. By traditional gauges, a traditional army must outnumber an insurgency by twelve- to fifteen-to-one

Certainly, we will have military victories. In Vietnam, we never lost a major military engagement. During the Tet Offensive, we wiped out the fighting capacity of the Viet Cong, inflicting one of the worst military defeats on an enemy in the history of combat. The Viet Cong was replaced by the regular army of North Vietnam, and the war shifted to a conventional one. But we were incapable of creating a legitimate, widely supported government. So even Tet was a pyrrhic victory, and then, of course, our media turned it into a defeat, a turning point in the war created by definition.    

Our very presence in Vietnam as foreigners propping up a regime raised questions of that regime's legitimacy, as it now does in Afghanistan. We make much of elections in Afghanistan, but the proportion voting in many provinces was negligible, as was the integrity of the election process itself.  

The reality of Afghanistan is that it is not a necessary war.  The Taliban did not orchestrate the events of 9/11. Osama bin Laden did, and he is most likely in Pakistan, moving back and forth across the border, safely hidden in the tribal areas. If we seriously want to defeat the Taliban, we must escalate the war, commit to staying there, and change the rules of engagement regarding civilian casualties. And then what? We will have so alienated the population that they will produce another insurgency, one sustained by Islamists across the world who cannot countenance the presence of infidels on Muslim soil.

If we are concerned about our own security, then we might want to look at the Islamist training bases on American soil, the probes by terrorists of our air safety, and the vulnerabilities this administration has created by redefining terrorism as a criminal justice issue.

American security doctrine has always used World War II as the paradigm to justify the projection of power. What we have forgotten is that in World War II, we bombed our enemies into oblivion and then rebuilt their societies on our terms. We do not have the legitimacy or the moral justification to follow that model in Afghanistan. We certainly do not have the political will. 

There is nothing patriotic about sending our young men and women to die in a war that will be fought in the absence of compelling military considerations, a war without resolution, a war where success eludes definition, and a war where the enemy and civilian population already know when we will be gone. 

Bring the troops home. There is much to do here to promote our own security, beginning with not further debasing our economic strength by spending money on needless wars.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.