Still the Right War

Last week, journalist and blogger Brad Plumer asked an intriguing and important question: “What about Afghanistan?” If we've come to the conclusion now that the Iraq invasion was a mistake, then how do we evaluate the disaster on the other side of Iran? The Afghan question is critical to devising criteria for military intervention, because it should represent an easy case, a war under optimal conditions and launched with justification: the Taliban was a weak military power, a nasty regime, had close ties with terrorists, faced widespread international condemnation, and showed contempt for the international community. If we can't make a good retrospective argument for the invasion of Afghanistan, then it's tough to see how to make a case for military intervention anywhere.

The extent of the remaining difficulties in Afghanistan has made the question more pertinent. As Blake Hounshell suggests, Afghanistan is “blinking red.” The Taliban has not been defeated. The security situation appears to be decaying. President Karzai's grip on power outside Kabul seems tenuous. Human rights aren't much more in evidence now than they were during the Taliban period.

So, what did we know and when did we know it? Does the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan hold up in retrospect, or have our difficulties there belied the wisdom of this war in the same way the disastrous occupation of Iraq has underscored the folly of that one?

I think that, on balance, the United States was correct to invade Afghanistan, and that progressives were by and large correct to support the invasion. Unlike Iraq, al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters posed a genuine threat to U.S. national security. In the run-up to the invasion, the ineptitude of the Bush administration was not yet on full display, and the invasion of Iraq was not predictable. And, importantly, the operation had considerable international support.


Al-Qaeda had used Afghanistan as a base for training and operations for attacks against the United States since at least 1997. Air attacks had, unsurprisingly, failed to dislodge al-Qaeda or destroy its camp infrastructure. The Northern Alliance could still fight, but was slowly falling back before the Taliban. Absent vigorous intervention, there was little reason to believe that either al-Qaeda or the Taliban could be severely damaged or dissuaded from further attacks on the West. The Taliban seemed almost uniquely resistant to international diplomatic pressure, as demonstrated by their obliviousness to the international outcry over their destruction of two ancient statues of the Buddha in early 2001. The argument that “the only language they understand is force” is rarely persuasive, but probably appropriate in the case of the Taliban.

Plumer points out that there are reasons to believe that the Taliban may have been willing to hand bin Laden over to the West and to evict al-Qaeda. I am unconvinced. First, as long as the camp infrastructure remained, the extradition of bin Laden would not have destroyed al-Qaeda's offensive capacity. More importantly, I doubt that the Taliban could have given bin Laden up without fatally weakening its own position. As Plumer notes, al-Qaeda operated as a light infantry force in Afghanistan, supporting Taliban efforts against the Northern Alliance. Reports during the war indicate that al-Qaeda fighters were among the best soldiers that the Taliban had access to. Turning over al-Qaeda's leader to the West (and potentially alienating the rest of al-Qaeda) might well have been fatal to the Taliban. Immediately prior to 9/11, al-Qaeda operatives assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, indicating that al-Qaeda understood the strategic situation in Afghanistan at the time and was willing to work on behalf of its Taliban hosts. For all these reasons, I think it's a bit naïve to believe that the Taliban would have turned bin Laden and his senior officers over for trial, or could have undertaken any significant effort to evict al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.

There was, moreover, good reason to believe that the U.S. operation would be a success. Although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s resulted in a powerful insurgency and disaster, the military balance in 2001 heavily favored the United States. The Taliban had no patron outside of Pakistan, whose cooperation with the invasion was secured prior to the attack. Although the Taliban had steadily been pushing the Northern Alliance back, it by no means enjoyed military supremacy. Taliban forces were not unified, depending as they did on the acquiescence of al-Qaeda and numerous local warlords of suspect loyalty. Meanwhile, U.S. air and ground forces were dramatically more capable than their Soviet counterparts of the 1980s. The result of the war was predictable, as the Taliban were quickly driven back, plagued by defections, and overrun. Al-Qaeda forces put up stiff resistance in several areas, but were also substantially defeated, if not destroyed. The campaign didn't come off without a hitch, as operations in mountainous regions failed to encircle and destroy al-Qaeda forces, but the invasion itself went as well as could be expected.


Many chastened supporters of the invasion of Iraq have argued that they could not have known, prior to the war, that the Bush administration's execution of the war would be as inept as it has been. But for a variety of reasons, it should have been clear to war supporters that the Bush administration was simply not up to the task of conducting a major war against Iraq and the attendant nation-building project. Since the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan has also been poorly handled -- to such an extent that the entire operation may be in jeopardy -- can this critique also be leveled against supporters of Operation Enduring Freedom?

I don't think so. First, as previously noted, a genuine national security justification existed in the Afghanistan case. The more pressing the national security concern, the less important questions of post-war competence become. To put it another way, even if the United States had enjoyed little confidence that it could reconstruct Germany or Japan as democratic states following World War II, the campaigns against either would have been justified by the serious national security threat that the Axis presented. The destruction of the threat -- in this case, the al-Qaeda camps and the regime that supported them -- took precedence over the establishment of a successor regime. And although the Bush administration failed to complete this job, it did do a significant amount of damage.

Moreover, even stipulating that, as justification, the nation-building project was less important in Afghanistan than in Iraq, the prospects were, if anything, better in the former country. Unlike in Iraq, organized opposition to the Taliban extended beyond a few fringe exiles. Indeed, Northern Alliance forces did much of the fighting, as did warlords who switched sides to support the United States. Coalition forces lacked this degree of elite support in Iraq. The low state of development in Afghanistan also made the nation-building project easier. While the invasion of Iraq caused considerable damage to local infrastructure, such that utilities and medical services still haven't achieved pre-war levels, U.S. occupation of Afghanistan threatened to do little damage and probably improved the material conditions of the populace. Finally, Afghanistan's remote location worked to its advantage. Neoconservatives in the United States did not consider Afghanistan an appropriate model for the construction of a democratic Middle East. This should have made compromises with local elites, and therefore stability, a more achievable goal.

Probably the biggest reason for the post-war problems plaguing Operation Enduring Freedom has been the war in Iraq. Even before the invasion there, the Bush administration began directing resources away from Afghanistan toward the Persian Gulf. The resultant invasion not only taxed the nation-building resources of the United States, but helped shatter the post-9/11 consensus on Afghanistan in Europe. On its own, the invasion of Afghanistan could be understood as a necessary, even noble response to a clear attack on the United States. In conjunction with the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan took on a more sinister tone, looking more like one component in a wider imperial project than a regrettable and unusual necessity.

Although we can't say for sure, I also suspect that the invasion of Iraq has increased material and popular support for what's left of al-Qaeda, which has worked to strengthen the hand of the rump Taliban in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much of the question of incompetence turns, therefore, on whether or not the invasion of Iraq was predictable in November 2001. Had evidence of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld's obsession with Iraq been available at that point, it could reasonably have been predicted that Operation Enduring Freedom would likely suffer. Most of that evidence, however, didn't turn up until later, making it harder to argue that the incompetence of the administration was manifest before Afghan invasion.


Finally, the international situation was favorable. The invasion of Afghanistan was widely popular in both the United States and Europe. Although the United States initially rejected direct NATO involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom (a decision that was probably correct, given how quickly U.S. and Northern Alliance forces rolled up the Taliban) it was always expected that NATO forces would participate in the occupation and reconstruction of Afghanistan. The United States also secured the cooperation of neighboring states at an early date. Pakistan acquiesced in the invasion after pressure from the United States and Russia, while Uzbekistan and Iran both cooperated fully. Iranian assistance in the western provinces was critical in the early days of the occupation -- and this cooperation might have provided the foundation for long term accommodation between Iran and the United States.

Given this level of cooperation, it was reasonable to expect that the international community would be forthcoming with the financial, social, and military resources necessary to rebuilding Afghanistan. This expectation has not been entirely frustrated, as many NATO countries (among others) have made significant contributions in the military and financial spheres. But to the extent that contributions have fallen short, if American progressives made a mistake about the war, then so did the rest of the West. International support should have served to make the operation more legitimate, to make additional resources available, and to increase the chances of a good outcome both in the war and the post-war reconstruction.


Given what we knew, the decision to invade still looks sound to me. The Taliban posed a genuine national security threat, the United States had the capability to eliminate that threat, and the international community was supportive of intervention. That's about all we can ask.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky, and a contributor to the blogs Lawyers, Guns, and Money and Tapped.

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