Doug Bandow, in an astute piece over at the National Interest, asks a simple question:
If America is not in Afghanistan to stop terrorism, then what are roughly 100,000 U.S. military personnel, along with tens of thousands of allied troops, military contractors, and aid workers, doing?
It’s a rather popular question these days, but the answer is not as simple as it was in, say, Iraq. Iraq was undoubtedly a strategic gold mine for U.S. national security planners and it fell comfortably into the dominant framework for how they conduct imperial policy. Afghanistan is not so obviously important in the strategic sense.
The Taliban have no broader goals outside ruling Afghanistan and ousting foreign occupiers, so the direct threat justification falls flat. Cries of a fundamentalist caliphate stretching across the region are simply paranoid and ignorant of the fact that our presence inspires such ideology rather than our absence; “Some policy makers,” writes Bandow, “appear to fantasize that only a pro-Western government buttressed by an American military presence can prevent” a potentially violent geopolitical competition between the U.S. and the other regional powers. But that talk is merely the fright of people profoundly committed to superpower status in every corner of the world. And anyway, such a power grab hardly justifies thousands of deaths, endless war, and a bolstering national security state here at home.
So why, then, are we still there? I think the reason may be analogous for the prolongation of the Vietnam War. By 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had admitted the war was unwinnable, but necessary in order to maintain international credibility and prestige. Obama is saving face, as were leaders conducting the Vietnam War.
What’s more is that our very presence as military occupiers and props to a corrupt government is the fuel for the resistance. The U.S. cannot win militarily, because the Taliban and other insurgents will continue to resist. William Oliver Trafton, a U.S. soldier in the war in the Philippines, considered the enemy a lower breed of people and expected a quick U.S. victory. Writing in his diary, he recalled a conversation with his friend:
He says, “Hell, they sure won’t kill only 40 of us.”
I says, “You told me that we could whip the whole thing in two weeks.”
He says, “Haven’t we licked them every time that we have had a fight?”
I says, “Yes, but the damn fools won’t stay whipped.”
Unfortunately, saving face seems to require a military victory over all else. As Bandow says:
A deal would appear to be the best of a bad set of options. The late Richard Holbrooke hoped to negotiate, but Gen. David Petraeus “was looking for something closer to a surrender than a negotiation from the Taliban, and his remains the default position in the Obama administration,” complained Time columnist Joe Klein. Other officials don’t want to talk until the United States has established clear military advantage—but what if the Taliban adopts the same strategy?