Afghanistan’s strategic importance is still up in the air

Michael Gerson is entitled to his belief that the war in Afghanistan is a strategic necessity, but he could probably make the point without thoughtlessly dismissing critics of the war:

The strategic importance of Afghanistan is difficult for critics of the war to deny. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, which began in state-sponsored terror academies there, are not yet generally regarded as a myth. The spread of Taliban havens in Afghanistan would permit al-Qaeda to return to its historical operating areas. This would allow, according to one administration official to whom I spoke, “perhaps a hundredfold expansion of their geographic and demographic area of operation.” And Taliban advances in Afghanistan could push a fragile, nuclear Pakistan toward chaos.

Except, it’s actually pretty easy for critics to deny the strategic importance of Afghanistan.  One of the most common claims from the administration and its supporters is that creating a stable government in Afghanistan is and has been an integral part of preventing terrorist attacks against Western targets.  The argument, as I understand it, is that instability is a breeding ground for lawlessness, which in turn creates the space for terrorists groups to operate and plan attacks against Americans and our allies.  The problem though, is that this doesn’t really hold up.  There’s not much evidence to suggest that a stable government in Afghanistan will lead to a lower overall incidence of terrorism.  Of the major terrorist attacks (against Western targets) since 9/11, the two largest – the March 2004 attack in Spain and the July 2005 attack in Britain – were planned and executed within the respective countries.  Indeed, the same is true of 9/11.

What’s more, and as Matt Yglesias has repeatedly noted, the terrorist attacks that we’re really worried about – nuclear, chemical or biological attacks – are unlikely to be carried out by terrorist groups located in Afghanistan, or even Pakistan for that matter.  In all likelihood, those plots will be developed and carried out by terrorists within the targeted country.  As for Pakistan’s stability, it’s worth pointing out that Pakistan has only become more unstable since we invaded Afghanistan and began attacking targets within Pakistan.  I don’t know enough about Pakistani politics to convincingly argue this, but I could easily imagine someone making the case that our involvement in the region has – on the whole – had a net negative effect on Pakistan’s stability.

The simple fact is that neither Gerson or the Obama administration has offered enough evidence to support the claim that our security – and that of our allies – is inexorably tied up in Afghanistan’s stability.  Indeed, from the standpoint of this semi-informed observer, it seems pretty likely that our movement in Afghanistan has far more to do with the sheer force of institutional inertia, rather than an honest account of our interests in the region.

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4 thoughts on “Afghanistan’s strategic importance is still up in the air

  1. Agreed Jamelle. In isolation my own to hell with em tendencies suggest we’d serve both the people of Afghanistan and our own interests best by closing shop and getting the hell out. Unfortunatly there is a moral component to it as well; America has been stirring the pot in that region for quite a while in the middle of last century and I’d think it could be argued that our abrupt departure after the Soviets folded may have led to the Talibans rule. Certainly I think there’s weight to the position that after decades of meddling in one way or another and after swooping in and flattening the previous regime that we have a certain obligation to try and help the locals put something back together again. (That’s what seperates me from Derbyshire’s to hell with em Hawks who espouse flattening the place and leaving.) Whether it’s within our ability to rebuild (build?) a society there is another question though I’d like to add that the War on Drugs ironically is once again screwing us sideways. If americans spray herbicide on the local farmers primary cash crop I don’t think it’s very surprising when the idle fellow picks up his AK and goes sniping after Yankees.

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  2. I think that Michael Gerson means from what is posted above is that with a stable legitimate Afghanistan government is that it would take a major training ground from al-Qaeda so that they can’t carry out another 9/11 type attack. As for al-Qaeda/Taliban attacking with a NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) weapon I don’t know which country would be reckless enough to give them the materials. Yes, chemical and biological are easier to make but harder to be effective. As for nuclear material is needed and any country that sells a terrorist group nuclear material would not exist or be functional after the said attack.

    The one question that is still bothering me is that exact goals of Obama to be in Afghanistan. I understand the destruction of al-Qaeda or removing the training/hiding areas for them. One of the other reasons could the age old reason: natural resources. Since the 90s large amounts of oil has been found in the Caspian Sea. Could some plan be in the works to get the oil out of there by going through Afghanistan.

    Just some thoughts

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