Is the war in Afghanistan still worth fighting?

As the war in Afghanistan begins its tenth year, the American public – and even the Obama administration – seems divided about America's purpose there.

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
US army soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division Alpha Battery 1-320th leave on a patrol from Combat Outpost Nolen in the village of Jellawar in The Arghandab Valley in the province of Kandahar in Afghanistan this September. The war in Afghanistan begins its tenth year this October.

Yes: But only if it is fought properly

The war in Afghanistan is worth fighting if it is fought properly. Substantial US interests are at stake. For one, US withdrawal would encourage the jihadists. But it’s not worth it if we persist in fighting the wrong way.

For two elections, Democrats have said that Afghanistan is the “good” war, from which the “bad” war in Iraq was distracting us. Indeed, our focus on Iraq did render Afghanistan an “economy of force” theater. While the situation improved in Iraq after the 2007 “surge,” it deteriorated in Afghanistan – which President Obama promised to rectify.

Last year, Mr. Obama announced that he would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by 30,000, fewer than the generals wanted, but enough to credibly pursue a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy of the sort that had improved the situation in Iraq. But during the same speech in which he declared the Afghan surge, Obama announced that the United States would begin to withdraw after 18 months. In an instant, this statement undermined the surge’s whole purpose. As former commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Conway observed, intercepted Taliban communications indicated this decision was “probably giving our enemy sustenance,” suggesting to insurgents that they could simply “wait out” the Americans.

If Obama doesn’t intend to fight the war properly – by resourcing the strategy of Gen. David Petraeus – he should say so, and cut our losses. But as Bob Woodward’s new book, “Obama’s Wars,” illustrates, he seems to have adopted the discredited approach of Robert McNamara during Vietnam: to fight the war in accordance with the political interests of the Democratic Party, rather than the US as a whole – especially the troops he is sending to war.

– Mackubin Thomas Owens, professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia

No: It has no justification

The war in Afghanistan is worth fighting only if it can be justified in terms of some larger strategic purpose. The Obama administration has failed to articulate any such justification. This is not surprising: No such justification exists.

The problem to which the war in Afghanistan ostensibly provides a solution is the threat posed by violent anti-Western jihadism – to employ the shorthand commonly used in Washington – “terrorism.”

But nine years after President George W. Bush launched his global “war on terrorism,” there is no evidence to suggest that the use of armed force on a large scale over a protracted period of time will reduce that threat. If anything, the past decade shows that the occupation of Islamic countries by Western forces, in fact, serves to exacerbate antagonism toward the West.

By waging a war on terror, we actually play into the hands of our enemies. Expending scarce resources at a prodigious rate – at least a trillion dollars so far – we weaken ourselves. Meanwhile, American professions of benign intent in Afghanistan, along with our claims to know what “they” need – freedom and democracy – ring hollow.

The perpetuation of the war in Afghanistan serves one purpose only: to camouflage our strategic confusion.

Fighting on in Afghanistan (and expanding Western military operations in Pakistan) creates the pretense of purposeful activity where none exists. So the “war on terror” takes its place alongside the “war on drugs” and the “war on poverty” as one more monument to Washington’s folly and fecklessness. Simply trying harder next year won’t produce a result any different from this year.

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and author of “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War

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