Why is Afghanistan starting to make me nervous?
After 9/11, Afghanistan seemed like the right war in the right place.
Even Americans who are knee-jerk-skeptical about military action recognized that we couldn’t let a terrorist attack at America’s heart go unanswered.
This part of the story is familiar: In late 2001, the moral high ground was all ours and Osama bin Laden was a perfect villain. And the Taliban? Who couldn’t support attacks on these ignorant, intolerant thugs who practice their religion by thrashing women and destroying antiquities?
But then we were distracted for seven years by the wrong war in the wrong place. In the meantime, in Afghanistan and eastern Pakistan, a nasty Jihadist stew was simmering over heat supplied partly by our misadventure in Iraq.
Now our attention is back on the region, with 21,000 more American troops on the way. The resurgent Taliban are still bad guys and Osama bin Laden still has one coming. And then there’s the threat to nuclear-armed Pakistan.
But some of the clarity is gone. Our motivations for being in Afghanistan and Pakistan are better understood than our objectives or the way to achieve them. It’s a familiar feeling for modern powers.
Many others have preceded us in this part of the world — Britain, Russia — and, looking back, it’s hard to discern what was accomplished by their histories in the area beyond considerable suffering and destruction all around.
And we’ve been in this situation ourselves, as well. Vietnam and Iraq were characterized by two essential blunders, both of which are potentially repeatable in Afghanistan and Pakistan:
First, a fundamental misunderstanding and oversimplification of their complicated histories and politics undermined our presence in Vietnam and Iraq. Experts tried to warn us that Iraq would be no picnic, but we were beguiled by a mixture of arrogance and naivete. Had we been able to recognize in March of 2003 that the abyss of Iraq — and all the indicators were there — would cost more than 4,000 American lives to achieve the current (temporary?) lull in violence, support for the war would have dropped to almost zero.
Second, in Afghanistan/Pakistan, like in Iraq and Vietnam, we naturally depend on our biggest tactical advantage: airpower. But our bombs will never be smart enough to avoid the kind of casualties that occurred last week in the Farah province, where more than 100 civilians were reportedly killed by American air strikes, an incident that is far from unique.
The military is attempting to cast doubt about the cause of some of the deaths, but — let’s be honest — we’ve always been more casual about civilian deaths in war than we would like to admit. And while superior airpower may save American lives, the inevitable collateral damage undercuts the prospects for "winning" the war.
Reports of Afghani dissatisfaction with our presence in the country are common, and some Afghanis admit to preferring the Taliban, whose rigorous religiosity isn’t as offensive in Afghanistan as it is here.
The Taliban, at least, provide order, which for some Afghanis is preferable to the displacement, uncertainty, and casualties of war.
But this war isn’t about preventing religious intolerance and oppression of women in a distant land, a cause for which most of us would not be willing to sacrifice our sons and daughters. Instability in the region, however, may represent a threat to us. The most likely solution is a strong, popular, homegrown central government, but our current tactics — bombing and more troops — are unlikely to produce that result.
The lesson: Our motivations in Afghanistan/Pakistan may be good, but Vietnam and Iraq should have taught us that there are narrow limits to conventional military power in unconventional situations like these.
Following the same path is a mistake. President Obama’s diplomatic rapprochement with the Muslim world is a crucial part of this puzzle.
Let’s hope for a good speech in Egypt next month.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)