No, America’s War in Afghanistan Was Not Worth It

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 2.08.49 PM

Nathaniel Haas argues against America’s War in Afghanistan in this “Face Off” edition (Photo by author). Please see J.T. Blakely’s “Face Off” article for a counter opinion.

Mousa: “This is Afghanistan…Alexander the Great try to conquer this country… then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people… you wish to hear?

Rambo: “Um-hum.”

Mousa: “Very good. It says, ‘May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.’”

-Rambo III, 1988

Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War 1839-42

“Afghaunistan (1839-1842),” a lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray, shows the British army before its “total annihilation” near Kabul during the first Anglo-Afghan War. (The British Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

With the full withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan set to be completed by the end of 2016, Barack Obama is gearing up to join Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Lord Auckland and Leonid Brezhnev in a club that appears to add a new member every few decades: the club of world leaders who have miserably failed to successfully reshape Afghanistan, a country that historians have come to call “the graveyard of empires.” Reflecting on this withdrawal, it is clear that America’s War in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost, measured in terms of the loss of human lives, financial resources and international credibility.

American engagement began with airstrikes in October 2001. By May 2003, President Bush declared the end of major combat and NATO assumed the responsibility of managing the transition to a civilian Afghan government. In 2004, for the first time, Afghanistan democratically elected Hamid Karzai, who subsequently announced a partnership with President Bush on the War on Terror. He opened bases in Afghanistan to US soldiers in exchange for training the Afghan national army.

In 2006, violence erupted again. In December 2009, Obama announced a troop surge, which sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and officially stamped his application to the graveyard of empires club.

13,000 Afghan soldiers, 3,440 coalition soldiers and almost 20,000 civilians have died to date in Afghanistan. Accounting for the future cost of medical care and fighting, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government study estimated the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan combined at $4-6 trillion.

Less quantifiable in terms of dollars and body counts, but equally as significant is the cost of the war on the United States’ image in the world. The Karzai regime’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would allow continued US presence in the country after 2014, speaks to the lack of credibility in the American war machine, namely due to the use of drones and night raids that have a dismal history of civilian casualties. These problems make it not only impossible to negotiate with Afghanistan, but will also directly hamper allied cooperation in the future.

The United States should also commit to end the indefinite detention of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and abroad, which was established during the first months of the War in Afghanistan. Guantanamo Bay and covert rendition programs have come to be seen by Americans and our allies as the most egregious manifestation of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. The Germans may have raised a diplomatic fuss over the tapping of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone, but I would bet her data plan that they took much more seriously the unlawful detention and alleged torture of Turkish citizen Murat Kurnaz, a German resident who was captured in Kabul by US forces.

The kicker is that for all of the aforementioned costs, we have gained almost nothing.

As the Taliban launches its spring offensive and begins to control larger territories, the thousands of Afghani citizens who have been displaced over the past ten years say little progress has been made. Gaetan Drossart, the chief of the Kabul branch of Medecins sans Frontieres, has treated such refugees for years and observed the violence that has gripped the country. “The truth is there is no such success story at all,” Drossart told RT. “The international forces are leaving the country so they need a reason and they need also a rationale to explain to their population why now they can leave.”

Beyond the Taliban, Afghanistan will continue to suffer from the potent attacks of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network. In a book out this year, Anand Gopal, who covered the war for the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote in her book, No Good Men Among the Living: America the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, that the War in Afghanistan was misguided from the start. Though almost no insurgencies existed in mid-2002, the war, through faulty alliances with Afghani drug lords and power brokers, created the very enemies it sought to eradicate. Haqqani and his network were two of them. “By classifying certain groups as terrorists, and then acting upon those classifications, the U.S. had inadvertently brought about the very conditions it had set out to fight,” Gopal commented.

When this counter-terrorism evolved into a full-fledged counterinsurgency and nation building, the war efforts in Afghanistan fell prey to the concept known as mission creep – the phenomenon where a mission of limited scope morphs into one much more complex. Though the most tangible accomplishment of the war is the establishment of the Afghan National Security Forces and the success of a democratic election that will be completed by the end of the year, proponents of the war should ask themselves: couldn’t we have done that in the first 6 months of conflict? Did it really take 12 years (the longest war in American history), a few trillion dollars and over 2,000 soldier lives to train 350,000 Afghani soldiers and hold an election? We aren’t even out of the woods – the instability and accusations of corruption in the election to select President Karzai’s successor demonstrates it has come at too high a price.

Three-star Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, whose 35 years of experience culminated in extensive work in Afghanistan and Iraq, is publishing the first after-action report on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the book, aptly titled “Why We Lost,” Bolger argues that the mission creep described above sacrificed the key gains made within the first six months of each war. Like the Gulf War, Bolger argues that after the removal of the hostile government (in Afghanistan’s case, the Taliban), the United States should have packed up and gone home. Instead, perpetual war and nation building that will take decades longer than the US (and the public) is willing to commit to have created more enemies than friends.

The failure in Afghanistan certainly won’t kill the American empire, but like Rambo, America hasn’t escaped Afghanistan unscathed. Afghanistan, like Vietnam, has exposed the limitations of the US war machine for all to see, and made the leaders and nation behind it less credible in the process. That doesn’t bode well going forward—just ask Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s mentee: “You expect sympathy? You started this damn war, now you’ll have to deal with it.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

 

Yes, America’s War in Afghanistan Was Worth It

J.T. Blakely argues in favor of America’s War in Afghanistan in this “Face Off” edition (Photo by author). Please see Nathaniel Haas’s “Face Off” article for a counter opinion.

This week there will likely be a terrorist attack in Afghanistan – an attack that, like the recent one that left 15 dead, will target civilians, Afghan police, and/or NATO peacekeepers. In the same time period, the number of US soldiers killed in action will likely rise from 2,170 to 2,180. These events will occur as US officials assess Afghanistan’s ability to fend off insurgencies amid seemingly unending bombings, kidnappings, and wavering support for the war both at home and abroad. If, after 12 of years fighting, these are the meager results of thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent, one may wonder: “was it worth it?”

Typically, the answer is an assessment of the War in Afghanistan through a security perspective – how safe is the US from terrorist threats or how stable is the Afghan government from Taliban insurgents? But this approach ignores a critical angle I’d like to address: the Afghani people.

13 years ago, Afghanistan was in the midst of conflict – a conflict that began with a communist coup in 1978, was precipitated by the Soviet invasion in 1979, and was furthered by a decade of civil conflict starting in 1992. America’s intervention in 2001, if even for questionable reasons, reduced unending violence and allowed for the first serious reconstruction efforts since 1978.

Since 2001, life expectancy in Afghanistan has risen by as much as 18 years per person while GDP has increased tenfold and billions of dollars of foreign aid have been unlocked. Similar improvements can be observed through other metrics such as infant mortality, which despite seeing little improvement during the 1990s, dropped by 50% after the Taliban’s fall.

Additionally, it is difficult to ignore the swell of liberties and political rights acquired by the average Afghan since America’s invasion. In the Taliban’s Afghanistan just 13 years ago, women were oppressed on historically unprecedented levels while everything from parakeets to public laughter was outright banned. Public beatings, shamings, and executions were not uncommon and though enforcement of laws was often uneven and arbitrary, these laws suffocated economic activity. Discriminatory policies and mismanagement of public facilities resulted in the ineffectiveness of many accommodations, most notably medical services.

Moreover, when in power, the Pakistan-funded Taliban showed no regard for Afghan culture or history as it deemed countless invaluable cultural artefacts sacrilegious. Just several months before Operation Enduring Freedom began in October of 2001, the Taliban demolished a pair of Buddhist statues known as the Bamiyan Buddhas despite fierce international objection. The two statues, built 1500 years ago, were registered UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

America’s war in Afghanistan has also made way for a new democratic system. The elections in 2004 were the first Afghanistan had seen in decades and the 2014 elections have marked the first time that power was transferred democratically in Afghanistan. And though Afghanistan’s first two elections were marred by controversy (something not uncommon in countries so poor) this year’s election has seen few issues aside from the threat of Taliban violence. Record turnouts rates have shocked the world.

America’s war itself has not wrought the destruction many seem to think it has. In the period between 1978 and the present, over 2 million people were killed in Afghanistan. However, nearly all of these deaths occurred before the 2001 invasion. Of those deaths since 2001, three-quarters were attributed to the Taliban. Meanwhile increased access to aid and medical services has saved countless lives among Afghanistan’s poorest residents.

So in addition to deposing a sacerdotal tyranny, allied forces in Afghanistan have offered the country an end to decades of conflict, have established a representative government, and have given Afghanistan a chance for reconstruction. The Taliban is gone and, given new data suggesting that only 35% of Afghans have any sympathy for armed resistance groups like the Taliban, it seems unlikely to return. Three-quarters of Afghans claim to be better off now than during Taliban rule and the same number feel satisfied with the current government’s performance. So as American military officials plan the troop withdrawal later this year, Americans may argue over whether the war was worth it for the United States, but there’s no debate that it was for Afghanistan.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

 

 

For Sustainable Development

armstrongfoIn this first edition of “Face-off” on Glimpse From the Globe, I will respond to my colleague Luke Phillips’ argument against sustainable development. Please read his compelling piece before you continue.

Luke and I agree on several points. First, the term “sustainable development” is nebulous. Second, the growth of past prosperous civilizations was fueled, in part, by consumption of natural resources. And third, I question humans’ ability to stop global climate change, not because of global disinterest, but because of the damage already done. However, I disagree with Luke on two points: (1) his justification for the need for continued resource consumption, and (2) his notion of progress.

A historical justification for the continued degradation of the planet is counterproductive and false. Luke correctly asserts: “the prosperous periods of Chinese, Islamic, and European Civilization all mark their periods of intense and unsustainable resource use…” In the past, imperial expansion was fueled – and funded – by the consumption of silver, water, coal, etc. Therefore, according to Luke, human growth and prosperity depend on “unabated resource consumption” and that any contemporary attempt to deviate from this historical pattern will stall human development. This proposition has two issues. First, a historical justification disregards human ingenuity and/or invention. Past civilizations discovered new ways to turn resources into wealth. For instance, the growth of industrial England was fueled by the use of coal in electrical and transportation infrastructure. What is to say that a contemporary society could not discover a new method (e.g., solar, nuclear, geothermal) to fuel growth in an environmentally sustainable way?

Yes, growth depends on the consumption of natural resources, but history should not shackle future human growth to the harmful consumption of natural resources. Scientific advancements and an environmentalist spirit have the potential for societal development, a fact not acknowledged in Luke’s argument. Indeed, there are contemporary examples that prove economic growth is possible with sustainable resource use. One such example is in the “green growth” of the Southeast Asian cities of Da Nang, Vietnam, Surabaya, Indonesia, and Cebu City, Philippines. A World Bank study concluded that investment in sustainable solutions, such as gas-capture landfills and wastewater-treatment facilities, led to economic growth due to “productivity gains, reduced pollution, and more efficient use of resources.” And the results are not confined to Southeast Asia. The World Bank found a worldwide correlation between GDP per capita growth and increased energy use efficiency. Sustainable development is not just possible, it is happening.

Luke’s argument also rests on the oxymoronic nature of sustainable development. In his eyes, sustainability reflects a sense of permanency, whereas development underscores constant change. When combined, sustainability will stall development, and societal progress will stop. However, sustainability and development are – and must be –compatible for the future health of the planet and its people. I define sustainable development as human growth that consumes resources at or below environmental equilibrium (i.e., the amount of resources the natural environment is able to replenish). This is not an equation for zero growth—it is an equation for the use of renewable energies and limited use of non-renewables to further fuel economic growth. It is a notion of progress that does not depend on the continued destruction of the planet. Further, it is a notion that must be embraced and perfected in order to protect the planet and its people. Continuing “to accept that growth brings with it a heavy price to nature” is a recipe for causing a level of climate change that may irrevocably damage, or worse end, future human growth.

In sum, Luke’s argument against sustainable development is defeatist as its logic precludes any hope of environmentally responsible human growth or innovation in green development. Luke contends that the best humanity can hope for is “preservation where possible amidst economic growth.” However, this pessimistic and faux-realist attitude ignores evidence of sustainable growth in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world that lend credence to the prospect of future sustainable development. Thus, Luke’s argument is unduly destructive. Yes, a transition to sustainable development will be a tremendous challenge, but I believe – and evidence shows – that it is possible.

Against Sustainable Development

Face Off: Luke Phillips and Thomas Armstrong Debate Sustainable Development.

Face Off: Luke Phillips and Thomas Armstrong Debate Sustainable Development.

At any reasonably civilized and well-attended international affairs conference, one of the issues bound to make an appearance is the concept of “sustainable development.” A controversial and nebulous term, most supporters of sustainable development generally agree that human development ought to be reconciled with resource conservation, ultimately to the point that no resources are used in excess or wasted. Harmony between society and nature is to be treasured, and it is expected that a society run on sustainable development will find that harmony.

Beyond this, the definitions are as varied as the proponents of the movement. Some campaign for sustainable development in developing countries such as India and Brazil hoping that, in turn, these countries can bypass the polluting industrial periods the West went through. Others support the placement of sustainable development measures in advanced industrial economies to balance out their resource intakes and pollution outputs by national or international policy. Still others are in favor of a far more organic role, with sustainable development occurring locally at the level of businesses and communities and working its way up the ladder of necessity on an ad hoc basis. In short, the practices mentioned above are as varied as the imposition of taxes on emissions and carbon caps, land preservation efforts, and everything in between. Sustainable development borrows much from the principles of environmental protection established earlier in the 20th Century and seeks to apply them directly to economic growth.

Regardless of the nobility and desirability of such a silver bullet to save the Earth, the truth of development is nowhere near as simple as depicted by sustainable developers. Consider the notion that sustainable development is in fact a paradox, or rather an oxymoron.

Sustainability implies a sense of permanency and renewability, and brings to mind small villages rotating crops around various fields bringing in a steady crop and thus a steady income supply. This same idyllic picture can be applied to almost any other commodity, from fish to timber to fruits to cattle. This example cannot, however, be applied to the nonrenewable resources of the interior of the Earth, including fossil fuels and precious minerals. Not surprisingly, the nonrenewable resource policies sustainable development supporters advocate border on complete abstinence.

In marked contrast to this is development. Development implies a sense of forward-moving change, of increasing utility and complexity, of expansion. A brief survey of history seems to reveal a general and sensible pattern; those nations and peoples who were the most powerful, prosperous, and healthy were those who expanded and developed, either in terms of territory, societal and political complexity, or status. And in every case, this growth was fueled by the efficient consumption of natural resources. The prosperous periods of Chinese, Islamic, and European Civilization all mark their periods of intense and unsustainable resource use; yet these also marked those societies’ eras of political consolidation, golden governance, high culture, prosperous markets, and general national greatness. Undoubtedly innumerable issues are at play in the development of a golden age, but underlying all must inevitably be a stable resource base and the productive use of it.

This may seem to be a materialistic analysis devoid of reference to the human spirit. I believe that it does seem to be true that the quality of life of any nation is, to a large degree, controlled by its observance of the abstract ideas of freedom, tradition, and innovation. However, there is a quantitative material foundation which must be set before any of these great social virtues can be observed, and so long as that quantity does not spill into decadence, its continued ascendance assures a better quality of life for citizens.

Sustainable development advocates will argue that society need not continue progressing, that a balance and harmony can be wrought out, and humans can continue to advance on the efficient use of resources alone. While this may be true of communities at the smallest level, I highly doubt that it can be applied at anything higher than the individual or, at most, the nuclear family unit. History seems to tell us that the nature of man is to expand – to improve – and from this expansion, all the dramas and stories of human life flow.

Indeed, when considering the implications of zero growth, an eerie economic picture comes to mind. So far as can be told, it appears that every human polity with a successful history has been based on growth and expansion of some sort, and therefore of continued and unabated resource consumption. But sustainable development, in its perfect model, demands the complete efficiency of resource use, a social harmony with nature recycling all. Thus there is no growth in wealth, as nothing more than is needed for survival is used; and no growth in wealth, in economic terms, is stagnation. In a period of stagnation, societies do not advance, do not grow, and do not improve the lives of their members. They merely exist from day to day. If we direct our policies towards sustainable development, we essentially steer our plans with a golden ideal of zero growth as our guide.

All this being said, I am very much an environmentalist. Once upon a time as a kid, I drew up a proposal for the federal government to buy up all remaining undeveloped private land, fence it off, and call it “America National Park.” Boy Scouts does that to you.

In all practical matters, however, I support environmental protection and conservation 100%. I like the system of management practiced by agencies such as the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, and think we ought to continue and expand it into light international law, particularly for fishery preservation. I favor many of the environmental movement’s earliest endeavors, from the Clean Air Act to legislation against riverine pollution to the Endangered Species Act to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. I am not sure that I believe as passionately in our ability to stop global climate change as many of my colleagues, but I look forward to the day when every vehicle runs on electric power generated at clean nuclear plants. Ecology enchants me, tree-planting and trail-building service projects excite me, and there is nowhere I love to be more than a national park.

But all this being said, prudence and moderation is necessary, for we cannot simply pick environmental protection over economic development, as this goes against the human work ethic, and indeed all of history. And we cannot knowingly take a contradiction in terms that cannot be made to work, and then attempt to make it work. Sustainable development is this type of term – a chimera – and the fact that its successes are scant seems to attest to its impotence. It would be preferable for humans to seek balance with the environment in another way: to accept that growth brings with it a heavy price to nature, and to offset that price not by ceasing growth, but by actively improving nature where possible – through greening projects, resource conservation, environmental protection, and preservation where possible amidst economic growth. These represent the only types of sustainable development compatible with the basic, fundamental human condition.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.