Tuesday, December 01, 2009

There is No Such Thing as a Military Victory in Afghanistan

Following up on Obama's speech this evening about escalating the war in Afghanistan, presumably to get us out of it in 2011, I was struck by the vague idea of "victory." Many liberals asked, "what would you do?" to anti-war detractors. "To accomplish what?" I would ask. Even David Sirota, with whom I generally agree, tweeted that "as much as I oppose Afghan escalation and think its doomed, I still HOPE it succeeds. I'm not an 'I hope the president fails' Limbaugh."

That all depends on how you define "success."

There cannot be a military success in Afghanistan. It was a failure the moment our troops and weapons hit the ground and adding more troops just adds to that failure. The only success would be a complete military withdrawal, strong support for real democracy in the region, strong support for human rights in the region, and an increase in humanitarian aid. Success would be taking most of the billions of dollars we are set to spend on this war and put it toward health care, education, and the environment. Success would be troop deaths in Afghanistan in 2010 equal to 0. Success would be civilian deaths in Afghanistan from drone attacks or any American weapons in 2010 equal to 0.

How else can one define success in Afghanistan? Capturing Bin Laden? If thousands or even millions of lives are sacrificed senselessly for the head of one overblown terrorist, would it really be worth it? Would we really be safer or would someone else come along to take his place, thriving on his martyrdom and the chaos in the region?

Perhaps success would mean increased security in the United States, but how do we measure that? Is it clear that adding tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan would make us more safe rather than less safe? What about the millions of people in Central Asia and the Muslim world who will see this as more reason to fight against the West? What about the fact that by spending billions on this escalation we are neglecting threats at home, including threats often treated as having nothing to do with spending on war, such as the tens of thousands of people who die each year because of lack of healthcare?

Perhaps success can be measured by bringing real democracy and human rights to Afghanistan. For politicians supporting this escalation, however, democracy already exists. We were waiting for a credible partner after all and, presumably, now we have one. The voices of women and ordinary people in Afghanistan on this matter are not part of this argument, it seems, with a few exceptions. As Malalai Joya, a former elected official in Afghanistan who is now banned because of her outspoken views, has written, "if we have a little bit of peace we will be better able to fight our own internal enemies – Afghans know what to do with our destiny. We are not a backward people, and we are capable of fighting for democracy, human and women's rights in Afghanistan. In fact the only way these values will be achieved is if we struggle for them and win them ourselves."

I do hope Obama succeeds when he chooses policies I agree with. When I disagree, and particularly when I think the consequences of his choices are both deadly and unnecessary, I lean towards failure.

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