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July 23, 2009

Comments

Building on our previous conversations, I just wanted to quickly note this point:

"there are more attractive safe havens available in several other settings, and waging war to shut them down as they crop up is unrealistic in the extreme"

In particular, I'm talking about "unrealistic in the extreme" -- which builds on the point Eric has made before that the US has "limited resources" to deal with terrorist safe havens in this manner.

First, there is the issue of what sort of impact the precedent of a successful* Afghanistan war will have on other actors offering protection to organizations like Al Qaeda. (I mean if it's possible the Taliban could be dissuaded, wouldn't that same possibility entail that same effect on other potential sanctuaries? But I digress**...)

(tbc)

Secondly, if I can indulge a comparison with the health care debate -- certainly a lot of it focuses on cost control and the like, but behind that lays a more fundamental question: Do we want to make sure that everyone of our fellow citizens has access to affordable health care?

The reason this question is central is because, quite frankly, we're a rich country, and as long as something's popular enough, we'll find the money to pay for it (either by taxing, or by borrowing).

For better or worse, this same logic applies to our nation's ability to make war.

Thus, the only times the US has ever ceased a military action, they weren't on account of running out of bombs to drop, or even soldiers, but a simple evaporation of public support. Vietnam and Iraq were known to be "unwinnable" long before they were abandoned; but when the public makes the end of the war itself a priority, the war ends. (It should also be noted that in both instances, the wars had to be sold -- and hard -- by the administrations responsible, and so were on somewhat shaky footing to begin with.)

Given that we are a country that has not traditionally been shy about using our military***, this is unlikely to happen in a war against a country the population perceives to be responsible for a terrorist attack -- let alone a major one -- against their home country. Again, for better or worse...

(notes to follow)

*(albeit, narrowly defined)

*... and may be repeating myself.

***To put it mildly, I suppose.

Well argued, Eric. Leaving Afghanistan is certainly on the way back burner of media attention. At least Helen Thomas is still on the beat: Afghanistan Now Is Obama's war.

BTW, the NYT story wasn't linked in the post.

Ah, fixed the link. Thanks NS.

Oops, botched the NYT story link.

Also, Fareed Zakaria had David Kilcullen and Andrew Bachevich on his GPS Sunday show debating the "Is it worth it" topic. The best answer Kilcullen could muster was "we have a moral obligation to Afghans." As you can image Bachevich didn't agree. [New CNN video player, might have tech issues.]

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I enjoyed the debate between Kilcullen and Bacevich, but one thing neither of them mentioned that stands out as important to me is the American government's moral obligation to the American people to bring the architects of 9/11 to justice. We already have KSM, but OBL and Zawahiri are still in the wind.

I would be willing to bet that if the latter two were captured, killed, or confirmed dead, the American people would be much more willing to contemplate a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

I consider myself a realist on most foreign policy issues and I agree with Bacevich that our national interests in Afghanistan are marginal, but justice (or vengeance, if you want to call it that) demands that the al-Qaeda leadership be brought to an accounting. I won't say no matter what the cost, but I believe the American people are still willing to pay a very high cost to obtain that reckoning.

What cost, I wonder, are the Pashtuns in general and the Taliban in particular willing to pay to continue sheltering these two men?

The worry for me is that the Pashtuns on both sides of the Dumond Line feel kinship ties...so they view the attacks as a an attack on them...and since the Pakistani govt. has long cultivated ties with this group, what chance do we have? Foreigners, who don't understand the culture, are religious heretics, etc.

Eric,

Great post. I think it summarizes very well the reasons I believe we should not be actively pursuing ground engagement in Afghanistan. I think we should limit terrorist camps as much as possible by "alternative means". It seems unrealistic to chase them around the world with ground forces as they move from one safe haven to another.

Thank you kindly Marty.

And I agree. Osama has stated, on numerous occasions, that he can make us lash about at the slightest provocation, and that he will bleed our resources and weaken us by making us chase shadows. We probably don't want to go along with that.

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