I first read The New American Militarism a few years ago for a class in college. Then came Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, The Limits of Power, which I picked up just as soon as it arrived at my local library. As far as foreign policy scholarship is concerned, Bacevich gives voice to a serious and often overlooked school of thought that – in the wake of the disaster we colloquially refer to as the Bush Administration’s foreign policy – deserves a respectful and serious hearing.
In the case of Afghanistan, however, I think Bacevich is wrong. His latest article for Commonweal is a stirring indictment of our conduct and strategic goals in the region, and I’m extremely wary of criticizing someone whose work I hold in such high regard. But at the risk of sounding like Jacob Weisberg (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), I do believe that certain segments of the non-interventionist Right have allowed the Iraq War and a general aversion to foreign intervention unduly prejudice their views on Afghanistan. Here’s why:
Given our history of flooding the country with arms, equipment and military training, I’m inclined to believe that the United States does have a moral obligation to help restore order in Afghanistan. I don’t think this entails imposing a particular system of governance on the country. I am emphatically in favor of scaling back our strategic objectives to providing basic security and ensuring certain minimal standards of administrative competence. But washing our hands and walking away strikes me as irresponsible and callous, particularly when our actions have contributed to so much turmoil in the region.
Bacevich’s response to the conflict’s moral dimension is almost dismissive. Yes, I suppose we also have an obligation to help Mexico weather its own bout of internal conflict. That’s why I’m in favor of reforming our drug policy. But fulfilling our moral obligations elsewhere and securing a minimal standard of internal stability for a country wracked by violence for much of the past three decades are not mutually irreconcilable goals. Attempting to demonstrate the absurdity of our mission in Afghanistan by comparing it to the plight of our southern neighbor is a non-sequitur – Mexico is not a failed state, and the same prescriptions that apply to a wild and lawless country in Asia have little relevance south of the border.
There’s also some tension between non-interventionists’ laudable concern for avoiding further civilian casaulties at the hands of the U.S. military and their almost cavalier attitude towards the consequences of withdrawal. Bacevich, for example, is in favor of “precision, punitive strikes” to prevent Al Qaeda from reconstituting after we leave. Presumably he refers to the same aerial strikes that have wreaked so much havoc in Pakistan over the past few years. We now know that increased reliance on air power risks greater civilian casualties – does anyone seriously believe that these ‘punitive strikes’ will become more precise post-withdrawal? Or are we in danger of endorsing a ‘risk-management’ strategy that trades the exposure of U.S. troops for even more civilian deaths?
Finally, the pragmatic case for staying. Bacevich seems to endorse some variant of this, acknowledging the need to prevent Al Qaeda from reforming through precision air-strikes and tribal alliances. So our mission becomes a question of means, not ends, and I’m inclined to think that committing a significant peacekeeping force for internal stability is the most appropriate mechanism for achieving these goals. Dramatically scaling back our ambitions in the region would be a welcome development, but I’m loath to abandon Afghanistan entirely to punitive air-strikes, tribal bandits, a Taliban resurgence, and whatever brave NGOs manage to stay the course.