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.

 

 

America Won and Lost the War on Terror

The World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 by “Marc AuMarc” via flickr (creative commons)

As the horrific events of September 11, 2001 fade ever-further into the recesses of public memory, it would be prudent to analyze where we find ourselves today in the intractable conflict – known as the “Global War on Terror”– borne out of 9/11. Two analyses, from Stratfor and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, respectively, have done this admirably well, and provided the backdrop for this article’s analysis.

Stratfor: Gauging the Jihadist Movement, Part 4: Franchises and Grassroots (Part of a Series)

Foreign Policy Research Institute: The Three Versions of Al-Qaeda- A Primer

During the Bush years, the United States effectively neutralized the trans-national threat posed by al-Qaeda, and the Obama Administration delivered the symbolic final blow with the Abbottabad raid, leading to Osama bin Laden’s death.

By the end of the Bush Presidency, it was clear that the al-Qaeda core was decimated and unable to coordinate even its own communications, not to speak of spectacular, large-scale attacks that could pose threats to the lives of civilians in Western countries. By this measure – the destruction of al-Qaeda’s C4 (command, control, communications, computers) – the United States won the War on Terror. President Bush, having learned the fate of premature declarations of victory after the famous speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, wisely chose not to declare victory over al-Qaeda in his Farewell Address. But by all realistic and meaningful measures concerning domestic security and the fate of the al-Qaeda core, the American intelligence and military machine had achieved strategic dominance over its foe. President Obama’s expansion of the drone war was often seen as an overextension of the War on Terror past its critical objectives, which is an inaccurate critique when considering the broader picture in that it served the purpose of pursuing al-Qaeda’s remnants further rather than dealing knockout blows. But for strategic purposes, the war had already been won.

But in another sense, it is evident that the United States lost the War on Terror. Many in the young, untested Obama Administration assumed that President Obama’s chief purpose in continuing America’s newly-renamed “Overseas Contingency Initiative” was to mop up the remaining hives of terrorist activity, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in new areas, such as Yemen and Somalia.

It turned out, however, that al-Qaeda as a movement was far more resilient than al-Qaeda as an organization. As the central command nucleus dwindled away, more local, practical offshoots were rising up in various regions of the world. When the media uses the name “al-Qaeda” today, they really mean one of al-Qaeda’s splinter or affiliate groups, chief among them the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and their Sub-Saharan counterparts al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. These are not all necessarily former al-Qaeda commands that split off; some are jihadist groups which have worked with al-Qaeda in the past and now carry on the war.

The function and purpose of these groups is all very clear: to bring about the establishment of Emirates in their local regions, be that through de facto rule during chaotic times (as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has done very well) or through the overthrow of local governments (as most splinter groups have been attempting). This is exactly in line with al-Qaeda’s mission statement as expressed so many years ago in Osama bin Laden’s Letter to America: “The removal of these [American-backed, non-sharia] governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Umma, to make the Sharia the supreme law…” and it reveals a new phase of America’s War on Terror. Today, rather than facing a single, silent, unified foe whose cells and operations stretched across nations, whose capacity was to bring world-shattering destruction upon the West, the United States now faces a broad, loose ideological movement composed of dozens of independent groups, each with the purpose of local disruption and ascension in mind. The only apparent counterattack is a broad mix of the failed counterinsurgency doctrines of the last decade, and a total deprivation of liberty in afflicted areas to neutralize all possible threats.

None of these groups can threaten the American homeland in the way the old al-Qaeda did, yet all of them can threaten American interests in ways the old al-Qaeda never could. Moreover, it is not our fight; it is the struggle of the peoples among whom the new jihadists fight to determine the destiny of each corner of the Muslim world. No matter how much America has done in the past, there is only so much she can do today and into the future. At some point, local communities must figure out what they want on their own accord.

The present US-jihadist war will not end until the historical forces presently bringing about the decay of the Greater Middle East have run their course or have been contained. It should be the purpose of US policy to adapt to this new reality, without, as was the Bush folly, elevating it to primacy as America’s primary foreign policy arena. The age-old American imperatives of maintaining a liberal world order and managing regional balances of power are as important today as they ever were, and those benchmarks are unlikely to change anytime soon. The War on Terror should be viewed as an integral part of US policy towards the Greater Indian Ocean region, completely coherent within US diplomacy, and development politics. To that end, US policies and planning should be redesigned with a more unified vision in mind.

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

America’s Reign of Terror?

Victims of drone attacks readied for burial in Miranshah, North Waziristan.

Victims of the January 23, 2009 American drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan readied for burial. A recent Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch report criticizes President Obama’s drone policy for killing innocent civilians and under-reporting collateral damage. (Creative Commons/Mohammad Mujitaba)

Between September 1793 and July 1794, the National Convention of France operated a “Reign of Terror” defined by the mass execution of potential counterrevolutionaries in the name of national peace. One of the proponents of governing through terror, Maximilien Robespierre, argued: “terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible [and that] the government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” In other words, the government may suspend the inalienable rights of its citizens in times of crisis. The ends (peace) justify the means (terror).

On September 14, 2001, the United States Congress expanded the constitutional powers of the executive branch to include the legal authority “to retaliate against any person, organization, or State suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks on the United States, but also against foreign States suspected of harboring or supporting such organizations. Finally, the President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.” Post-9/11 national security laws have allowed for a permanent retaliatory war with unclear operational and legal boundaries.

The “Global War on Terror” certainly requires an extraordinary military response; the list of “legal” military responses has grown to include drone strikes and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) missions on potential terrorists in foreign states, states which Congress has not declared war on. The president may suspend the constitutional rights of citizens (by Amendments V and VI of the US Constitution ) and non-citizens (by Articles 3 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), in the name of peace. Once again, the ends justify the means.

Criticism of this “paramilitary arm of the administration” is well publicized. However, a new report released last week by Amnesty International in conjunction with Human Rights Watch has brought the Obama administration’s policy on global terrorism into the spotlight. The organizations claim that several drone strikes have been a “clear violation of international humanitarian law,” citing the failure to apply due process before applying the “capital punishment” administered by a Hellfire missile. Further, “Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions,” and that those responsible for ordering the aforementioned attacks (presumably President Obama and his military-intelligence team) should stand trial. (Note: The White House has challenged Amnesty International’s latest report, reiterating that all counterterrorism operations are “precise, lawful, and effective.”)

Drone strikes and JSOC missions are both morally and legally questionable as evidenced by the intentional killing of American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year old civilian living in Yemen, who was killed as punishment for his father’s (Anwar al-Awlaki) crimes and for who he might become—a terrorist made in his father’s image. Furthermore, these missions have a negative impact on America’s ability to effectively engage in diplomacy because of the anti-American distrust and resentment that grows in targeted regions.

I anticipate three defenses of President Obama’s drone policy and subsequent internal law and human right’s violations: (1) drone and JSOC strikes are effective in eliminating terrorist threats; (2) “terror” implies a murderous policy; and (3) war is ugly and why should the US government be indicted for trying to suppress terrorism? I would respond as follows:

(1) Yes, US drones possess deadly accuracy on selected targets and spare the endangerment of US troops in volatile regions such as the Afghani-Pakistani border. However, despite their precision, drone strikes, night raids, constant aerial surveillance—and most dramatically, the killing of innocent civilians—only fuel greater anti-American sentiment. Terrorism is as rampant and threatening as ever. Al-Qaeda and its global affiliates are expanding in spite of successful US operations to kill top commanders. America needs to “win hearts and minds”—drone strikes do not accomplish this goal.

(2) True, President Obama has never advocated the killing of civilians. In fact, he has publicly expressed regret about civilian causalities in war zones. But as in every conflict, civilians have died and the constant threat of a bellicose America is terrorizing people around the world. Exploded missile fragments can be found near kill sites in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan; to those finding these ordinances, the “Made in America” message is clear. Children in Pakistan have grown accustom to drone flyovers and are left wondering “am I next?” The CIA’s East African kill list has been contracted to Somali warlords. Perhaps the mother of all surprises has stemmed from Obama’s willingness to detain foreign journalists who speak out about errant American strikes. This is not a covert “Global War on Terror.” Citizens of Mali, Thailand, Panama, Yemen, and more than 70 other countries know all too well that they may become the next in a long line of unsuspecting victims, and from their perspective, America is to blame.

(3) Yes, war is ugly. Soldiers and civilians die at the hands of Allied and insurgent forces. Millions have been displaced. However, murdering—via drone strikes—over 400 innocent civilians in Pakistan is unacceptable, as is the murdering of American citizens abroad. And committing murder in the name of ending murder is nonsensical. But killing without oversight is undermining the very moral and legal fiber of the United States (not to mention bilateral relations with countries in which drone strikes have occurred) and international institutions such as the United Nations—the very institution established to end unchecked killing.

Civilians in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border refer to American JSOC forces as the “American Taliban.” In their eyes, America has become the very monster they promised to destroy. America has scarred and radicalized an entire generation, and as a result the number of “terrorists” will only grow. America’s “despotism of liberty against tyranny” must end, but how does a war like this end? Perhaps Yemeni political activist Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani’s advice is best: “In the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way, by killing, and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem. To truly fight al-Qaeda and similar groups, we must deal with the root causes of its growth—poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law…and drone strikes.”

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

Update 11/4/13: correction made to the caption for accompanying photograph.