U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan

Exemplifying the great cultural gulf between those who build the country and those who rule it, U.S. troops in Afghanistan are rapidly losing morale as President Obama dithers over what to do.

The central question: what is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan?

Unlike the situation in Iraq, U.S. military personnel on the ground are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the United States cannot realistically hope to achieve any positive result by continued occupation of Afghanistan. Thus their morale sags as their comrades die or are maimed without a clear objective being served by the sacrifices.

An article in the Times of London describes the situation with sobering accuracy.

Key passages:

The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. “The soldiers’ biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, other than to stop the Taleban, because that almost seems impossible. It’s hard to catch someone you can’t see,” said Specialist Mercer.

“It’s a very frustrating mission,” said Lieutenant Hjelmstad. “The average soldier sees a friend blown up and his instinct is to retaliate or believe it’s for something [worthwhile], but it’s not like other wars where your buddy died but they took the hill. There’s no tangible reward for the sacrifice. It’s hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here.”

Captain Masengale, a soldier for 12 years before he became a chaplain, said: “We want to believe in a cause but we don’t know what that cause is.”

The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while trying to help a population that will not help them. “You give them all the humanitarian assistance that they want and they’re still going to lie to you. They’ll tell you there’s no Taleban anywhere in the area and as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at again,” said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

While many on the right call for a big troop surge to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, it remains unclear what objective would be served by such a large investment in lives and other treasures.

If, as has been suggested by many, our goal is to go after al Qaeda and capture or kill Osama bin Laden, a mass occupation of Afghanistan is an absurd way to go about it. Information is what we need, and occupying Afghanistan has done little to provide it so far and has little promise of doing so. Moreover, upon receiving such information, having bases in Afghanistan merely cuts off a few minutes in the trip bomber jets would have to make to take out the al Qaeda leaders.

To pay such a large price for the saving of a few minutes on a bombing run is patently absurd, even if that few minutes would prove to be the difference between hitting bin Laden or missing him.

The alternative apology for our involvement in Afghanistan–to sort out the tangled and destructive political and social situation in that nation–is even less justifiable. It is in fact the very quagmire many people argued Iraq would be, to a vastly greater degree. At least in Iraq it could be argued that most of the locals wanted us there. In Afghanistan that is clearly not the case, and everybody is armed to the teeth. We simply cannot win there without destroying Afghanistan and inflicting huge damage to our own society.

Fortunately, a principled alternative is available, and one that sets our real national interests as its foundation. As I have argued in the past, classical liberal principles, reflecting the thoughts of a great tradition extending all the way back to Gen. George Washington, provide an unsurpassed guide for deciding on when to undertake military action:

[T]he classical liberal position on international affairs would be as follows:

  • Every nation is sovereign over its own affairs.

  • Every nation is entitled to conduct its affairs as it chooses unless its actions affect other nations.

  • When actions affect other nations, those nations have a right and indeed a responsibility to their own citizens to remedy the situation. The obligation on the part of the reacting nation is to formulate a response that redresses the offense and ensures that there will be no imminent repetition of it.

  • An affected nation responding to a wrong has no right to impose additional consequences on an offending nation, even if the intended effect is to ensure that the offender will not resume the offending activities beyond the foreseeable future.

That is clearly a principled position that provides a definite guide for action against foreign aggressors while upholding the idea of national sovereignty that is crucial to the protection of any people and their government.

In the same article in which I outlined these principles, I pointed out how the Iraq War failed the test:

Just as obviously, this is not what the United States has done in Iraq. Changing Iraq’s government and overseeing their writing of a constitution certainly stepped well over that line. Assisting the new Iraqi government in pacifying the nation and policing it were thoroughly unjustified on classical liberal principles and remain so.

It seems evident that the situation in Afghanistan fails this test a good deal more spectacularly than even our Iraq involvement did. The current goal is murky at best, achievement of any large objective by an outside country in Afghanistan is difficult to the point of foolhardiness, and other means would achieve the benefits sought in our involvement there more readily and economically in all respects.

–S. T. Karnick