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.

 

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.

 

 

The Italian Job: Operation GLADIO

In the final years of World War Two, Partigiani – the Italian resistance fighters who were largely left leaning, openly socialist, or communist – liberated Northern Italy. This struggle, known as the Italian Civil War (8 September 1943 – 25 April 1945), ensured that the once vilified Marxist political ideologies would become central to post-war republican Italy.

An Italian partisan in Florence, 14 August 1944. TR2282

An Italian partisan in Florence three days after the Liberation of Florence orchestrated by the Italian Resistance, 14 August 1944. (Captain Tanner, British War Office official photographer/Wikimedia Commons)

In the context of the Cold War and the Truman Doctrine, the popularity of communism and socialism in Italy represented an expansion of Soviet influence, and thus an existential threat to the United States. One of the first covert actions approved by President Harry Truman was ordered out of fear of a communist victory in the April 1948 Italian elections. In addition to overt diplomatic support for Italy’s government, the National Security Council recommended that a covert program be implemented to “actively combat Communist propaganda in Italy by an effective U.S. information program and by all other practicable means, including the use of unvouchered funds” (NSC 1/1). This covert action was the precursor to NATO’s formal clandestine operation in Italy known as Operation GLADIO (1948-1990).

Operation GLADIO included a combination of propaganda, political action, and paramilitary action. Starting with the 1948 general elections, the CIA funneled money to political parties that opposed the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in every election for 24 years. This aid was largely to help cover the costs of campaigning, posters, and pamphlets. The CIA also forged letters discrediting party leaders on the left. The paramilitary aspect of Operation GLADIO was to train anti-communist clandestine networks, which often recruited former fascist hardliners. The most direct political action took place in 1964 when Operation GLADIO supported a silent coup in which the socialist ministers were forced out of government.

Operation GLADIO is inextricably tied to Italy’s “Years of Lead” (1960s-1980s), the period of Italian history in which extremist groups on the left and right committed domestic terrorism and targeted killings. Among these were the neo-fascist groups Ordine Nuovo and Rosa dei Venti, which carried out multiple bombings. Both of these groups allegedly had GLADIO-trained operatives among them carrying out bombing operations. GLADIO-trained operatives have also allegedly carried out “false flag” operations. Consider the case of the 1972 Paetano terrorist attack. The communist group Red Brigades was originally blamed until, in 1984, Vincenzo Vinciguerra – a fascist terrorist who claimed to have been supported by the GLADIO network – confessed. It is suspected that the Red Brigades’ assassination of Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 was also a “false flag” – the evidence being an alleged threat to Moro from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the involvement of the Banda della Magliana, an Italian criminal organization tied to GLADIO and the 1980 Bologna Massacre.

Stragedibologna-2

The ruins of the Central Railway Station of Bologna after the Bologna Massacre, 2 August 1980 (Beppe Briguglio, Patrizia Pulga, Medardo Pedrini, Marco Vaccari/Wikimedia Commons)

Ultimately GLADIO was successful in ensuring that a socialist or communist government never held power in Italy until 1996. The strategy of tension employed by GLADIO’s intervention was effective in allowing the US to influence Italian politics by creating instability through polarization. However, the operation caused the deaths of many innocent Italians and arguably denied the country its right to national self-determination. Additionally, Italy’s politics remain highly unstable and volatile to this day. In terms of upholding the principles on which the United States was founded and preserving the long-term stability of a democratic Italy, this operation was a failure.

Il 25 aprile a Milano

Italian Liberation Day Celebration in Milan 25 April 2007 (Paolo Bellesia/Wikimedia Commons)

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

Is NATO Still Relevant?

 

For the last two decades, NATO has been conflicted about how and where to act. This identity crisis has led to inter-alliance strife, messy operations, and inaction. Currently, NATO is paralyzed in responding to the Syrian Crisis due to—among other reasons—an uncharacteristic rift between the American and British governments. In light of such shortcomings, along with a perceived United States pivot away from Europe, increased European Union security engagement after the Lisbon Treaty of 2010, and shifting methods of warfare (i.e., drones and computers in place of land forces), pundits and politicians have disputed the continued relevance of NATO.

Yet NATO is unquestionably relevant today. First, NATO provides a forum for world leaders to discuss matters of global defense and security. Second, NATO is currently engaged in operations around the world from anti-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa to nation building in Afghanistan, the alliance is directly connected to today’s issues. Third, NATO actively shapes transatlantic—and consequently global—foreign policy. For instance, Article V of the NATO treaty (‘an attack on one is an attack on all’) serves as a deterrent to those considering harming a member of the alliance. Most recently, the intervention in Libya exemplified how NATO’s military involvement has real ramifications, serving as a partial catalyst for the subsequent full-scale revolution seen in the state.

NATO’s relevance is incontrovertible. However, proving relevance seems unsatisfactory to pundits and politicians. Perhaps, the crux of the dispute is NATO’s continued value.

NATO’s value lies in the absence of an alternative. NATO is the most formidable and sophisticated military organization in the world, thanks in large part, but not exclusively, to the US. As Ambassador Ivo Daalder and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Stavridis explained: “Some countries have significant military reach. But when a group of countries wants to launch a joint intervention as a coalition—which confers political legitimacy—only NATO can provide the common command structure and capabilities necessary to plan and execute complex operations.” Moreover, the EU has shown an inability to pool the security and defense resources of its member states. If the alliance were to disband, no member state besides the US would be able to assume full responsibility for their national defense.

The future for NATO will certainly be challenging. NATO faces various threats, from shrinking budgets to intra-alliance friction and changing political environments. Further, the coverage of Article V is unclear. Consider a hypothetical Russian cyber attack on the British banking sector. Would this constitute an act of war? NATO has this and other critical questions to answer. Can and should NATO act without unanimity? Should the Europeans establish military autonomy or continue to rely on the equipment and chaperoning of the US? And most fundamentally, is NATO an alliance that truly wants to act outside of its borders? NATO must answer these questions in order to stay relevant in the 21st century.

To address modern security challenges, NATO must embrace non-military capabilities. As Afghanistan revealed, terrorism cannot be eradicated with missiles. Errant drone strikes only further incentivize people to join terrorist organizations, and brigades of troops cannot dismantle global wireless organizations. Piracy too requires a more comprehensive approach. The best way to fight crises such as terrorism and piracy is to deal with the root causes, such as food insecurity, lack of access to education, and corrupt state leadership. This holistic theory for crisis management is not revolutionary, yet NATO (especially the US) has forgotten that war is a long-term humanitarian and security project. To NATO’s credit, reforms are in place to fuse civilian and military crisis management capabilities. These reforms must continue, as well as continued cooperation with the UN and EU.

A retreat of NATO to its historical role of defending European territory is outdated and ignores the global and diverse nature of 21st century conflict. Non-state global issues such as cyber and energy security, piracy, and climate change require a response for which NATO is uniquely prepared. Armed with demonstrated military capabilities and global transnational partnerships, NATO is already well positioned for carrying out integrated “hard security” and “soft security” operations. If NATO can unite under a new strategic framework, and stand determined to tackle the “hard” and “soft” security challenges presented in today’s environment with more than military force and surveillance, the alliance will remain both relevant and valuable.