Our nation has begun a modest surge in Afghanistan, ostensibly as a prelude to substantial withdrawal of ground forces from that country, if not from Southwest Asia altogether. The decision to surge seems to be based upon two key assumptions.
First, some new violence is necessary. Prosecuting this war justifies not only the surge but also the increased use of assassination in Pakistan and presumably elsewhere. The relationship between the war in Afghanistan and diffuse but real security interests once referred to as the “War on Terror” is unstated, but the tacit belief seems to be that success in Afghanistan will ameliorate problems in other places, mostly by denying terrorists a safe haven like Amsterdam or Fort Hood.
Second, the solution in Afghanistan is political. Afghanistan will not know peace until it has a minimally competent government, its tribes use law instead of violence to resolve disputes, the populace is better educated, and so forth. In short, peace requires, if not the robust democracy of Neocon dreams, at least a substantial degree of modernity.
The Obama administration was slow to formulate its strategy for Afghanistan. Supportive as ever, the New York Times lengthily described the administration’s process as deliberative and thorough, and therefore presumably wise. Having carefully collected and sifted through the available intelligence, President Obama, who as head of state and Commander in Chief holds both the olive branch and the arrows, came to the conclusion that the United States should augment its force in Afghanistan with 30,000 new troops, though their stay will not be long.
While I, too, must hope this was the right decision, exactly what was discussed for all those months remains unclear. In saying that this surge will “get the job done,” the administration implicitly asserts a causal relationship between the proposed violence and our objectives. So just how does our new violence lead to a political solution in Afghanistan? Violence is usually opposed to politics; killing people is not the same as building institutions. I am not a pacifist, and sometimes violence does lead to new politics—but we seem to be assuming that if we achieve our military objectives, good politics will naturally arise. Why?
Such questions have been reduced to an obscene parody of accounting. How many troop days buys an institution in Afghanistan? Michael Bloomberg could hardly price a vote in New York, yet we think we know how much force it takes to engender sound governance in Afghanistan. What backs up the claim that a relatively short-term commitment of 30,000 troops, aided by Predator drones and an increasingly paramilitary force of CIA operatives, will generate politics—that is, institutions, consensus, and a functional state? What is the political logic that our killing advances?
Spurious accounting fills the silences in policy discourse. Posturing aside, what could confidently be said about our proposals for Afghanistan? The politics of the future is hard to know under the best of circumstances; the future politics of a failed state in the midst of civil war is almost entirely speculative. The effect of present military intervention upon future politics under such circumstances is speculation squared.
Why do we think our leaders know how to think about this? Whose experience, what learning, could they draw upon to make a good guess? No doubt they have heard from experts, but we do not have experts who have built a nation out of the raw material of present-day Afghanistan. Even the best experts, when confronting the fundamentally unknown, can only offer their guesses. Their speculations, incidentally, would be more convincing if they were publicly articulated. The question remains of how the surge is supposed to work. How will it further our security interests here and abroad? What is the logic of our strategy? History suggests some ways to think about how invaders might construct a political system. There has been much talk about counterinsurgency—establishing order in discrete areas and expanding those areas until the mass of people, who only wish to get on with their lives, do not feel compelled to help the insurgents. Denied the support of the population, insurgents can be isolated and defeated. While counterinsurgency can work, it requires enormous time and resources—much more than have been publicly contemplated for this mini-surge.
Counterinsurgency verges upon (and was theorized in the context of) colonialism. If invaders are to have a lasting impact on the political life of their conquered territory, they need to win ideological battles—in the minds and perhaps then the hearts—of the conquered population. So did the Spanish in what is still called Latin America, the British in India, and in modern times and with different language, the Allies in Germany, all of whom were able to build new political orders not just because they invaded, but because they stayed, and they convinced the conquered people. But colonization is illegal, and we are not about to colonize Afghanistan.
Colonization usually entails settlement. Invaders do not leave after the invasion; they take up residence. They bring or take wives and give their labor, their children, and ultimately themselves to the new land—Jericho for the Jews coming out of Egypt, Belgium for the Spanish under Charles V, or the American colonies for European settlers, for examples. Such commitment, if massive enough, can give birth to a new politics. In due course, settlements thus established may be incorporated into the founding polity. The Romans made the people they conquered into Romans. Or the colonies may break free, as did the United States and India, ever after bearing the marks of their institutional parentage. But we are not going to do anything like that with the Afghans. We will return to our own homes, not make new homes with them.
So I do not know how we propose to establish politics in Afghanistan—a real problem if our security requires a political solution. Perhaps the surge is the right approach. Surely we have serious security concerns and deep responsibilities to the Afghan people. But I fear we literally do not know what we are talking about, do not know how to think through what we are proposing, and are whistling past graveyards of our own making.
I also worry that talk about engagement and the necessity of a political solution is merely a pious charade. After all, we should reassure the world that this administration thinks before it acts. It is also widely believed that we cannot simply leave Afghanistan, lest we damage the credibility of our military. (Our history with Vietnam echoes loudly.) Or perhaps the surge really addresses other, unstated, national interests. It is difficult, however, not to fall into the cynical suspicion that the “deliberation” was merely the usual bureaucratic jockeying over issues of institutional prestige, resources, and the avoidance of blame. Those things said, in considering our Afghanistan strategy, I have tried to take my leaders at their word.
While being thoughtful is essential, understanding the limitations of our own thought is better. If we have no real plan for Afghanistan and are sailing on a wing and a prayer, we are left to hope that the Afghans will suddenly, wearily, come to their senses, stop fighting, and build a semi-functional state. But if that is our hope, why have we been deliberating for so long? There is always time for a miracle. God help us, and the Afghans, too.
David A. Westbrook is Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law, The University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. His book, Deploying Ourselves: Islamist Violence and the Responsible Projection of U.S. Force is forthcoming from Paradigm Press.