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

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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.

 

Checklist: Has President Rouhani Lived Up to his Promises?

Hassan Rouhani

Elected in June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani formally assumed office in August. He has since made remarkable advances, including a push to ease nuclear tensions with the West in order to rid the economy of encumbering sanctions. (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In early June, newly-elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate in comparison to his hard-line predecessor Mouhmad Ahmadinejad,emerged as a symbol of hope for a citizenry burdened by a catastrophic financial crisis brought on by Western sanctions. Prior to beginning his term, Rouhani vowed to direct governmental efforts towards mending Iran’s shattered relations with the West, reviving the Iranian economy, and articulating a desire to restore basic human rights within the country.

While the new leader was warmly met by the eager masses ready to move past the repressive Ahmadinejad era, there was no telling whether his words would bear fruit. Rouhani’s potential to affect such change was eclipsed by a shadow of doubt stemming from the supposition that he would serve as merely yet another slave to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Islamic regime. So has Iran’s “angel” Rouhani upheld his rhetoric presented during his campaign since entering office? Now, more than 6 months into his presidency, the gulf between his words and actions can be qualitatively tracked.

Appeasing the Hardliners

How has Rouhani performed thus far in winning the favor of governmental hardliners while working towards his progressive reform plans? At the start of his presidency, Rouhani took initiative to begin thawing strained US-Iran relations with a visit to the United Nations. You may recall his fifteen-minute phone call with President Obama during the trip, a call that garnered both support and criticism. Regardless of the critics, this phone call was a huge first step in the right direction towards reconciling US-Iran relations considering that the two states have not shared this level of contact since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Furthermore, Khamenei approved of Rouhani’s October trip to the United States. Although unable to appease hard-liners on the issue as they derided his approach, as long as the President is able to maintain the Supreme Leader’s support, he will be able to ward off hard-liner criticisms in his advances towards a relaxed relationship with the West.

Catering to Reformists

During his reign thus far, Rouhani has been performing a careful balancing act; he has struck a careful balance between the hardline and reformist camps while avoiding alienating Khamenei and other key government players. The new President has successfully garnered and maintained support from notable predecessors, including popular former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and former President Akbar Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, who remarked that “Rouhani’s success in New York is the mark of the divine victory.” Although not to the degree which former president Khatami was able to mobilize the “Iranian street,” Rouhani seems to have been met with considerable success in galvanizing the reformist camp, namely the youth who have warmly accepted his overtures to reduce Internet censorship.

Ending Sanctions

Perhaps his most significant achievement thus far has been unveiled at the negotiation table with Western powers. Back in November, Rouhani was able to successfully reach a temporary deal with the United States while entering into a year-long negotiation period to construct a permanent deal to ease sanctions. The $7-billion USD received by Iran in sanctions relief created room for a rise in the Iranian Rial and a minor stabilization of the national economy. Both the initial agreement and the overtures by both parties have been called nothing short of “historic” in the media.

Economic Viability

As mentioned, some of the easing of sanctions has seen a rise in the purchasing power of the Rial thereby providing Iranian citizens with some relief. Analyst groups claim that “last year, with economic pressure at its peak, Iran suffered from severe hyperinflation, and the Rial became the least valued currency in the world. This is no longer the case, as the Rial has gained significant value in 2013’. However, further economic steps must be made; the nuclear deal with the West has yet to come into full form, and whether Obama will be able to convince Congress to further repeal sanctions will prove to be a major determinant of whether Rouhani’s reform efforts retain momentum.

Relations With Israel

Thanks to his reputation as the new face of Iran, Rouhani has garnered a considerable amount of positive press and, for the most part, positive attention from the West – which has acted as a negative force against Israel. Within a month of Rouhani’s holding office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” immediately dismissing him as nothing more than another mere slave to the Islamic regime. However, it seems that Israel emerged as the real loser in this love triangle between the United States, Iran and itself, failing to turn the West against its enemy as it had hoped. Within weeks after the Prime Minister’s fiery comment, Iran successfully brokered the temporary deal with the United States. Since then, public Israeli threats and comments against the country have subsided as the country now seems more preoccupied with the Palestinian question than the Iranian-nuclear issue at the moment.­­­

Human Rights

The human rights issue is arguably the weakest front of Rouhani’s presidency thus far. The leader’s promises on this subject seem to be little more than empty rhetoric, as notable action has yet to be taken to restore basic human rights and create equality among members of the citizenry. Premature optimism for Rouhani to improve civil rights issues has all but withered as the only observable change has been a steep rise in executions since he took office.

Another warning sign in his term stems from the detainment of prisoners within the country. The government’s minor gesture of releasing a few political prisoners in December did little to placate the mounting concerns of relatives and families of those still imprisoned, including activists of the “Iranian Street.” Additionally, despite early promises to address the house arrests of Green Revolution leaders Kharibi and Mousavi’s house arrests, not even a mention of the issue has been made. The president has remained silent even amidst mounting claims from close family and friends that their health is deteriorating significantly as a result of being confined within their households for several years now.

Whether Rouhani’s strategy to maintain popular support follows that of his predecessor Khatami’s path remains to be seen. In the middle of Khatami’s second term, his base fell apart due to youth and women disenfranchisement. Rouhani’s track record on human rights and freedoms may very well be what determines his support from his base.

Implications for U.S.-Iran Relations

Despite his shortcomings on the human rights dilemma, Rouhani’s successes have provided the Iranian regime with some degree of legitimacy it had been lacking for years, both in the eyes of the international community and the Iranian electorate. The real question for the Obama administration, however, is whether the Rouhani government’s newfound political capital and prestige is enough to placate conservative Hawks in Congress on both sides of the aisle who have been itching to introduce further sanctions. Any new congressional sanctions against Iran would not only spell the end of the current deal but would most likely set back nuclear negotiations by a number of years. Yet Rouhani, a veteran statesman and diplomat, is keenly aware that the halls of Congress are just as significant an arena for statecraft and diplomacy as the negotiating table. Rouhani’s foreign minister Javad Zarif has recently made a concerted effort to promote lobbying of their position to Congress via the small-but-growing Iranian-American lobby already present in the country.We will know soon enough how far Rouhani is willing to go to make good on his campaign promises in seeking to uplift the Iranian state.

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

The Handshake Heard Round The World

The Obama-Castro handshake at Nelson Mandela’s Johannesburg memorial signified no shift in relations between the U.S. and Cuba. It was merely a handshake.

On December 5th, a chilling announcement made by South African President Jacob Zuma was quickly heard worldwide: Nelson Mandela (95 years old) had died.

The former revolutionary in the movement against South Africa’s National Party’s apartheid regime, and later President of South Africa left behind a legacy that will likely remain unparalleled by other world leaders for some time to come. While some mourned the loss of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning global icon who committed his life to peace, compassion and forgiveness, others snubbed the passing of a coldblooded ‘communist’ murderer who was imprisoned for 28 years and was considered a ‘terrorist’ by the United States until only five years because of his anti-apartheid involvement.

Regardless of whether you’re on the cheering side or on the jeering side, the fact stands that Mandela’s leadership had a global impact making him one of the most influential world leaders to date. But it seems that even in light of his recent death, our own leaders cannot look beyond partisan divides and quarreling. Consider the Obama-Castro handshake at the memorial; a civil and brief greeting between the two leaders led right-wing conservatives to label the gesture as despicable, traitorous conductwhile liberals dubbed it a thawing of tensions.

Despite the geographic proximity, the United States maintains a distant relationship with Cuba having severed diplomatic relations over fifty years ago when Raul’s brother Fidel assumed power. Contrary to the imagination of those lambasting the handshake, there was no political game at play – the handshake was merely a handshake. Period. What else was Obama supposed to do? Completely ignore Castro’s presence and rebuke him? It was appropriate for Obama to shake hands with another world leader while attending the memorial of the world’s greatest symbol for peace.

In spite of being raised by their parents to always shake hands when meeting or greeting someone, Republicans felt the urge to immediately slap a partisan sticker on the situation. Senator John McCain even likened the handshake to that between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German Third Reich leader Adolf Hitler in the lead up to WWII – a completely inappropriate and exaggerated analogy. McCain even dared to note that the leader of the freest country in the world has no business shaking the bloodstained hand of a ruthless oppressor who is “keeping Americans in prison.” Well, Senator, there are just two minor faults in your statements. First, have you ever heard of the Gitmo? Second, may we remind you that you not only shook hands with, but also spent a ‘late evening’ with, the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi at his ranch in Libya. You then tweetedabout it. Apparently Obama’s courteous handshake with Castro was more deserving of condemnation than McCain’s play-date with Gaddafi.

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1976-063-32, Bad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain shakes hands with Adolf Hitler. This image, coupled with Chamberlain’s words, would become the gold standard for appeasement. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-063-32 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

But the liberal left has also mistreated this handshake. The first U.S.-Cuba handshake in over a decade is now being perceived as a signal of improving relations between the two states. It seems that this event – a brief, non-orchestrated six-second greeting – constitutes an instantaneous 180º shift in foreign policy and diplomatic relations.

Let’s consider three more historic presidential handshakes with other less tans savory leaders. The handshake between British Prime Minster Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry Truman and Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin at the 1945 Potsdam Conference was designed to symbolize that communist and non-communist interests could be set aside in the wake of Nazi Germany’s collapse. The image was supposed to capture an alliance determined to move forward.

Triple handshake, with, from left to right, Winston Churchill, President Harry S. Truman, and Generalissimo Josef Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. (via Wikimedia Commons/Truman Library)

And then there’s the Reagan-Gorbachev handshake. In 1998 at St. Catherine’s Hall at the Kremlin, President Ronald Reagan shook hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev before their final summit meeting. The planned handshake symbolized the first meeting between the U.S. and USSR in six years and marked the start of a thawing in bilateral relations.

Gorbachev and Reagan 1985-9

Reagan and Gorbachev at Geneva Summit. By Fed Govt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most importantly, let’s not forget the orchestrated 1959 Washington press reception that hosted then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s and Cuba’s new revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. The two men shook hands and that was that.

All three of these handshakes between American Presidents and foreign strongmen were carefully constructed to convey a specific message in a specific context. On the contrary, Obama’s handshake with Castro was unplanned; it was simply a display of courtesy and nothing more. There was no predetermined plan for the two to encounter each other and shake hands in front of the camera and we are unlikely to witness any change in bilateral relations with Cuba. In fact, it would have been extremely inappropriate had Obama not greeted Castro at Mandela’s memorial; Obama shook hands with each leader he encountered which was the appropriate, civil thing for a world leader to do while honoring a man who stood for peace and compassion. It is inappropriate for certain individuals in the media and Congress to be spinning the memorial of the South African leader into a groundless and ludicrous controversy over a non-event between two men with hands. Those shouting at the gesture need to get a handle on the broader message before us all, that being Mandela’s legacy.

America and Iran to Bury the Hatchet?

Barack Obama on the telephone with Hassan Rouhani

President of the United States, Barack Obama, talks with the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, during a telephone call in the Oval Office on 27 September 2013.
(Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran has no interest in building nuclear weapons, either for national prestige or for security reasons. He went on to remark that he is willing to sit down with President Obama and discuss a rapprochement between the United States and Iran. President Obama cautiously agreed, and the agreement has led to both criticism and applause within their respective governments. Few details have emerged, but the foreign policy community has already started chiming in on this surprising development.

In a year where the Russians have agreed to mediate negotiations for a Syrian truce and disarmament, perhaps nothing should come as surprising. Yet on the Iranian question, no greater shock could have come, save perhaps a preemptive strike by the Americans and/or Israelis. The United States and Iran have been diplomatically disengaged from each other since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and for the last 10 years relations have only worsened as the two states have played a sort of game of thrones over the ashes of Iraq and influence in the Gulf region. The Iranian nuclear program, funded for decades before the fall of the Shah by the very Western governments which now so viciously condemn it has for the last decade been the most visible point of contention between Iran and the United States. Additionally, Iran’s aspirations for regional leadership and dominance ensured that there has been no shortage of American efforts to contain the Shia nation and prevent it from upsetting the regional balance of power. The seeming radicalism of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, most callously expressed in his denial of the Holocaust, did not help the diplomatic situation in any way.

When Rouhani succeeded Ahmedinejad, there was buzz among the Western media suggesting that this man might be “our man;” he seemed progressive and democratic enough and his words sounded good. Add on to that the events of the Green Revolution in 2010 and the subsequent Arab Spring and there seemed to be an inkling that liberal populism might provide Rouhani the legitimacy necessary to fundamentally change Iranian policies – both foreign and domestic. But after a brief media honeymoon, his fame died a slow and quiet death, as Iranian policy did not appear to differ significantly from that of Ahmedinejad.

Fast forward to today, when we see Rouhani apparently making baby steps in a progressive direction. He has renounced over a decade of Iranian security policy, while making overtures to integrate Iran with the international community. As many commentators have noted, this should not be seen as a sudden change of heart; the Iranian President is undoubtedly still confined by certain limits and boundaries. Nevertheless, this change in tone marks a critical shift, one which will certainly have profound effects on the region. Already the Saudis and Israelis have voiced their disapproval of impending US negotiations with Iran. I recall becoming disillusioned after years of catching the oft-used “Israeli strike on Iran closer than ever before!” headline and resigning myself to the conclusion that the United States and Iran would remain enduring enemies, periodically exchanging harsh words but never anything more. It appears that this state of affairs may soon change.

This saga illustrates an interesting principle of politics best articulated by former Secretary of State George Kennan: “No other people… is entirely our enemy. No people at all… is entirely our friend.” Shifting power paradigms tend to manifest themselves in surprising ways; to the futurist or to the contemporary observer, this development may appear seemingly irrational, yet to the historian looking back it seems perfectly sensible. And thus great shifts in the balance of power are common occurrences in world politics, with many of them marking new political eras.

In 1992 the Europeans signed the Maastricht Treaty and established the European Union. Between 1989 and 1991 the Soviet Union crumbled and the world map was redrawn. In 1973 the People’s Republic of China turned on their former Communist friends in the Soviet Union and instead began working with the United States. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the former colonies of the old European empires claimed their independence. And in each case, observers were shocked; only two or three years earlier there would have been no indication that radical change was on the horizon. This is how the present cooling of relations between the United States and Iran should be viewed: a political anomaly that does not make sense now but one day will be heralded as a major breakthrough in international relations.