“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” ~ Albert Einstein
There is some debate over the original source of that oft-quoted axiom, but there is little doubt that it might appropriately be considered when debating President Obama’s current choices regarding Afghanistan. There is a long history of nations doing the same things in Afghanistan over and over again, only to suffer the same results: disastrous failure and loss. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, Afghanistan has been the graveyard of many an empire.
Today, President Obama is wrestling with difficult policy and military choices. In the end, his challenge is to make the choices that will somehow break history’s cycle of insanity in Afghanistan.
As our President listens to trusted advisors and ponders the proper course of action – and its consequences – it seems appropriate that ordinary citizens like you and me do the same. While I don’t have any reason to believe the President will be taking my opinion into consideration as he weighs his options – I’m neither a military man nor a politician – I also know that a vocal citizenry making itself heard can be an effective deterrent to collective insanity.
Over the years I have often regretted that I was not an active opponent of escalating the war in Vietnam when I could have been. Back in those days, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Today I am repenting and atoning for my silence. In this generation, I have become a strong advocate for good people fighting all forms of national insanity by breaking their silence. The majority of America’s people – you and I – are “good people,” and our informed voices can make a difference. In the prophetic words of renowned cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
If we are silent as the President makes his decisions, we share responsibility for whatever sanity or insanity may ultimately ensue.
So what are the President’s options, and what should your and my position be on any of them? What potential courses of action should we be arguing for and which should we be loudly railing against? Where should we be planting our boots and drawing our personal lines in the sand?
The most obvious choice – and the only one arguably guaranteed to break the cycle of insanity in Afghanistan – is to simply cut and run. And that is certainly the exact course of action that many thoughtful Americans would elect as their knee-jerk first choice. As one who is personally predisposed to oppose war in any and all cases where it is not arguably absolutely necessary, that would be my first choice, too. I am a spiritual person, even a religious person in the broadest and most inclusive sense of the word, and the historical voices of all the world’s spiritual traditions call me to rise above any pre-civilized tendency to engage in war – even a “defensive” or “just” war – in order to achieve peace. In the words of my friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, words I take to heart, “All forms of violence, especially war, are totally unacceptable as means to settle disputes between and among nations, groups and persons.”
But I fear the President’s choices are not as simple as war or not war. As we ponder the difficult choices with both reason and a passion for peace, it is important to remember that our President is not approaching his Solomon-like decision with the luxury of a clean slate. He has inherited a history. Like it or not, America is already involved in the insanity that is the Afghanistan-Pakistan landscape. Somewhere in the mountains and hills and caves and homes and cities and villages are real people, some of whom have attacked the people of the United States and who are intent on doing so again. There are people – men and women and children – who long for peace, and still others whose fervent radicalism calls them toward the perpetual suicide of violence. We have already made an inescapable investment in the region – a human, political and military investment that colors our commitment going forward and complicates any reflexive thoughts of simply abandoning our presence there, as sane and logical as that withdrawal might on the surface appear to be.
Nonetheless, withdrawal is clearly the one option that is always underlying the debate over all the other options on the table.
What are those other options?
Simply put – too simply, probably – they boil down to these three: increase the number of American troops in the region and ramp up the war effort, as some military advisers are suggesting; continue what we are doing in the region with the number of troops we already have or maybe slightly fewer or more; or begin to scale down our military presence in the region with an eye toward ending the military effort and concentrating on political and social nation-building. The President has indicated he is weighing three or four permutations of these options, and that he wants to make sure “that if we are sending additional troops that the prospects of a functioning Afghan government are enhanced, and that the prospects of al-Qaeda being able to attack the U.S. homeland are reduced.”
The military options, reduced to cold numbers, appear to include adding the number of troops that military brass are suggesting – 80,000 is the number being widely floated – or a smaller number, with Obama reportedly considering 30,000 to 50,000 additional troops. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has reportedly told the President that the U.S. mission was “headed for failure” without the addition of about 40,000 troops. An opposing voice, that of Karl Eikenberry, Obama’s appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan and a former military general in the area, has leaked a private message to the President saying the local government is so unstable and corrupt that sending ANY additional troops would be ill-advised. Other military experts – both past and present – have suggested that a military victory in the region – whatever a “military victory” means – is not possible without an all-out commitment of at least 600,000 American troops.
These military options are nothing more than cold numbers and speculative approaches until this fundamental question is answered: why are ANY American troops in Afghanistan and what is our objective there? Many in this post-Bush era are asking, what would constitute “Mission Accomplished?” What is our mission? What are our short-range and long-range goals in Afghanistan?
If we don’t have goals and objectives, we can’t possibly achieve “victory,” no matter how one defines victory in guerrilla war, which this most certainly is. If we don’t have a clear set of goals and objectives we will never realize them – we will only realize a perpetual state of war, no matter how many or how few soldiers we commit to the effort.
Is our goal the capture or death of Osama bin Laden and the eradication of al-Qaeda, as stated when this “military action” was launched after 9/11? Or do we harbor idealistic humanitarian goals of nation-building, rooting out corruption, installing some stability in the local governments, and brokering a peace among the disparate religious factions that have been fighting one another for centuries? Are we hoping to impose some sort of tenuous peace in order to provide a measure of security in a region that includes a neighbor with nuclear weapons? The questions of purpose must absolutely be answered before any consideration of increasing or reducing troop levels makes even the slightest sense.
Without a clear sense of what would constitute “victory,” defeat is inevitable. Blindly repeating the actions of the past in Afghanistan without any fundamental goal or realistic expectation of achieving different results than the failures of all earlier invading empires would surely be nothing short of insanity.
As near as I can tell, there currently exists no such articulation of America’s goal and purpose in Afghanistan. Soon after taking office, President Obama said America’s primary strategic interest is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda and prevent its return to Afghanistan. Obama has also said he doesn’t want the Taliban to return to power. Those objectives are commendable, but hardly succinct.
So to my mind, President Obama actually has two major decisions to make, and make soon. He needs to decide – and articulate clearly – what our goals are in Afghanistan, and then – and only then – he has to decide the best strategy to achieve those objectives.
And this is where you and I – and our considered thoughts on the matter – enter the equation.
The President is going to be deciding what gain the people of our nation – namely you and I – intend to realize from whatever sacrifice we choose to make in support of our Afghanistan effort. Our personal opinions need to be researched and thought through and then loudly proclaimed. The possibilities of a protracted and misguided continuation of our military involvement in Afghanistan has been compared to our hapless national sacrifice that was Vietnam, where we clearly had no clear vision of what we were realistically hoping to accomplish there.
And somewhere in this complex mix, there needs to be a recognition and acknowledgment of what the cost of waging war is doing to the health of our nation. That cost is a “staggering” $243 billion according to John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But it is difficult to pin down the real financial cost of the war. The Pentagon puts the price tag at $156 billion, but that figure does not include how much the CIA has spent on intelligence operations, or how much the State Department has spent on diplomacy and reconstruction. The United States spends about $3.6 billion a month in Afghanistan, according to data provided by the Congressional Research Service. Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, estimates that it costs about $1 million to send one soldier to Afghanistan for one year. That kind of money could buy a lot of health care or education back home in the United States. We are tragically suffering the consequences of “guns or butter” economic choices every day. It was Army General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower who said, “We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security,” and who also astutely noted, “War settles nothing.”
The human cost of the war is more obvious and apparent. The Pentagon says that since 2001 more than 900 U.S. service men and women have been killed in Afghanistan. October, with 58 killed, was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war began. We all know it is America’s young people and their families who are the incalculable victims of war and the ones suffering and bearing the burden of Washington’s military decisions. And then there is the toll in suffering being meted out daily against the often-innocent men, women and children of Afghanistan.
For my part, I have attempted to do my homework and to take into consideration as many of the objective facts and positions on the issue as I can digest, and to come up with my own personal position – one I can defend and advocate and encourage my President and my fellow citizens to support.
And my informed position is this:
By any historical and objective measure, a military conflict in Afghanistan is un-winnable. Further, any western attempts to impose democracy or broker a peace between the ethnic tribal warlords and factions of the region are equally doomed. This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that repeating the actions of many armies of the past in the region, while expecting a different result, would be insanity.
But abandoning a traditional military solution to the complex problems in the region still leaves us with the mess in which we currently find ourselves, and leaves us still needing to address serious problems in the region: encouraging some sort of stability in the region while also following through on the President’s goal of disrupting and dismantling the very legitimate threat of al-Qaeda. Addressing these concerns does not require a massive infusion of combat troops, however. Humanitarian aid, combined with limited strategic covert efforts to track down and eradicate al-Qaeda strongholds makes sense. As for the Taliban, it’s worth noting that the Taliban has never launched attacks outside the borders of Afghanistan. Their conflict is ethnic warfare against their own people, and there simply is no outside military action that is going to end that. There comes a time when we Americans have to acknowledge that we cannot be the world’s police in every instance, and the callous truth is the United States has no vital interest in Afghanistan, other than rooting out a small number of undesirables. The problem of the Taliban will ultimately have to be solved by the people of Afghanistan themselves, not by foreign armies. There are questions about whether Afghanistan is even governable, but no one questions the fact that it is certainly not governable by foreign occupiers.
Bottom line: my stance is that we need to begin winding down our military involvement in Afghanistan immediately. Forget crunching the numbers any longer – committing more troops to Afghanistan would be perpetuating the insanity of fighting a war that simply cannot be “won” by any meaningful measure. The only sane strategy is now an exit strategy.
That’s my stance. What’s yours?
It’s more than a rhetorical question – it’s more of a call to action. If we are to avoid the national catastrophe that was Vietnam, we need to be informed and vigilant – and we need to demand that our leaders rise above the insanity of war. It took the enlightened voices of millions of anti-war protesters, taking to the streets and wrenching apart the fabric of our country, to get the attention of America’s leaders and finally cause them to abandon the insanity of the Vietnam war some forty years ago. Middle America was largely silent until belatedly moved to cry out.
In President Obama we have a leader who was elected in part on a promise to wind down our war mentality. As he ponders his difficult decisions, I am confident he will be viewing his options in light of that promise. There will be no quick end to war or any simple resolution of Afghanistan’s myriad problems, however. As the President’s decisions are made while the conflict continues, it will be incumbent upon each of us to be advocates for the highest and best position – the movement toward a global policy of choosing non-violence and diplomatic engagement over the insanity of war.
Vocal advocacy and pressure on our President and Commander-in-Chief is not to be confused with a lack of support for the promise we elected with Barack Obama. In truth, our support of the best of his anti-war promise will be needed by our President if he is to fend off the inevitable criticism and ultimately take a resolute stand against the insanity of war.
Thomas Jefferson, speaking to the generals and critics of his day, said, “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”
It will take the wisdom and courage of President Barack Obama – buoyed by our anti-war support – to face down his generals and critics and say no to war, and do the right thing.
John Lundin is a liberal blogger, political news junkie, environmental and clean energy advocate, retired Protestant clergyman and pastoral counselor, spiritual teacher and writer, and author of THE NEW MANDALA – Eastern Wisdom for Western Living, co-authored with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Rev. Lundin resides in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, Nevada.