Although the politicians, media, and public believe few things are more important than preventing another al-Qaeda attack on America, defending the founding principles of the republic would seem to be one of them.
The conventional wisdom is that the war in Afghanistan is a “war of necessity” that cannot be lost if the war against al-Qaeda is to be won. This proposition is only now being questioned because the fraud-plagued Afghan election makes a legitimate government almost impossible and because the war in Afghanistan has turned into an eight-year quagmire that is getting worse by the day. Not only is the conventional wisdom wrong, but Gen. Stanley McChrystal should be fired, even if it means losing the war.
McChrystal, much like Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, has publicly spoken out about decisions that are the exclusive purview of the elected civilian leadership. At great cost to his popularity, President Harry Truman cast a great blow for the critical republican principle of civilian control over the military by firing the insubordinate MacArthur. President Obama could do the same with far less cost; McChrystal just took his job and is not a popular war hero, as was MacArthur.
The founders of the United States—reacting to warlike monarchies of Europe and their own suspicions of standing armies as a threat to liberty—realized that the principle of civilian control over the military was crucial to the survival of a republican form of government. The ill effects of militaries meddling in the civilian affairs of state have recently been demonstrated in Honduras and Thailand. But hypocritically, at the same time President Obama is letting Gen. McChrystal publicly undermine his freedom of action on whether to pour more U.S. troops into the Afghan tar pit, the United States is making increased aid to Pakistan dependent on the Pakistani military staying out of civilian business.
Whether Obama takes the politically incorrect and unlikely route of firing McChrystal, the U.S. must face two stark facts. First, a surge in Afghanistan to match the “successful” surge in Iraq is not likely to work because Afghanistan is a larger country with guerilla-friendly mountainous terrain, has a more zealous insurgency than Iraq, and where the insurgency has a sanctuary (in Pakistan). And now Afghanistan will likely have an illegitimate government.
Besides, it is far from clear that the surge in Iraq worked. In 2005, the U.S. also conducted a similar troop surge in Iraq, and violence increased. Prior ethnic cleansing and paying off Sunni guerillas to redirect their belligerence from U.S. forces to al-Qaeda are probably more likely reasons for the lower violence, which is likely to be temporary. Iraq’s underlying ethno-sectarian fissures remain, the country’s security is fragile, and violence will likely erupt again when the U.S. draws down its forces.
Second, even opponents of the surge in Afghanistan understate their case against it. Their correct conclusions are that in a democracy, it is dangerous to escalate a war on which U.S. public opinion has soured after eight long years of losing and that al-Qaeda in Pakistan can be effectively fought using fewer troops, drones, cruise missiles, and intelligence. However, proponents of the surge answer, seemingly cogently, that Afghanistan must be stabilized or it will be a safe haven yet again from which al-Qaeda will attack the United States.
Because politicians are intrinsically cautious when it comes to national security, the proponents are likely to win this argument unless Americans finally face up to the question that they have avoided since 9/11: Why do radical Islamists, such as al-Qaeda, which are halfway across the world, focus their attacks on the United States?
The answer is in plain sight, but it is too painful for Americans to acknowledge. Osama bin Laden has repeatedly given us his reasons—U.S. occupation of Muslim lands and support for corrupt Middle Eastern dictators. For example, in 1998, bin Laden charged that it was “an individual duty for every Muslim” to “kill the Americans” and drive their military “out of all the lands of Islam.”
So the nation-building, drug-busting fiasco in Afghanistan is merely inflaming the Islamist urge to throw out the foreign occupiers. It is no coincidence that the resurgence of the Taliban is correlated with increases in the foreign military presence in Afghanistan. Furthermore, nation-building in Afghanistan has destabilized neighboring Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons.
In conclusion, the likely futile attempt to stabilize Afghanistan to prevent another safe haven for al-Qaeda is actually fueling the fires of anti-U.S. Islamist rage. Withdrawing from Afghanistan and focusing on neutralizing the real threat from al-Qaeda in Pakistan—not the Taliban—using the aforementioned techniques with a lighter footprint will give the U.S. better results.
This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.