Arnon Grunberg



A different take on Afghanistan – Jonathan Rauch on Persuasion:

‘Conventional wisdom sees another in a string of lost U.S. wars. “America’s war in Afghanistan is ending in crushing defeat,” headlines The Economist. The U.S. is “calling an end to the whole sorry adventure, with almost nothing to show for it,” the magazine editorializes. In Foreign Policy magazine, Emran Feroz writes, “The war began as it is ending, in failure.” A headline in the same publication says “Afghanistan Is America’s Greatest Strategic Disaster.” Those are only a few random examples of countless declarations of defeat.
Well, hold on a minute. Humility cautions us not to be confident of how Afghanistan will look in five or ten years. But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the Taliban do retake power and resume their campaign to make Afghanistan medieval again. Assume a refugee crisis, human rights violations, and even resumption of terrorist activity. Yes, that would be bad. Yes, history—and, possibly, American voters—would judge President Biden harshly for it.
But it would not have made the campaign a mistake—or even, on its own terms, a failure. To the contrary: Even assuming the worst, the operation should be considered at least a partial success and well worth the effort—flawed and limited, to be sure, but better than the alternatives and far from a strategic or moral catastrophe.
To begin with, the financial cost (something in the $1 trillion to $2 trillion range) was substantial but, over 20 years, quite sustainable. “Given the size and scale of our military, and what we spend on it, I don’t think Afghanistan amounted to all that much in the end,” Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of The National Interest magazine, told me recently.
The cost in U.S. fatalities was too high in the sense that any fatalities are too many; but, as long wars go, this one’s total was modest: about 2,500 U.S. military fatalities, versus almost twice that total in Iraq and, of course, far more (upwards of 58,000) in Vietnam. Moreover, since 2015, after the U.S. ended its surge and delegated front-line fighting to the Afghans, annual U.S. fatalities have not risen above two dozen. More service members die every year in training accidents. (In fact, the relatively low fatality numbers are a reason to be puzzled that President Biden felt such urgency in pulling out.)
As for the Afghans, they assuredly suffered in the war, but they suffered more under Taliban rule. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution figures that the war may have cost 400,000 Afghan lives over the past 20 years, but he guesstimates that U.S. activities there saved a million or more lives, a significant net positive.
Consider: Infant mortality dropped by half during the U.S. operation. Life expectancy improved by six years. Electricity consumption, a key quality of life indicator, increased by a factor of 10. Years in school increased by at least three years for men and four for women. University graduates rose from under 31,000 to almost 200,000. (Those and other indicators are available at the Brookings Afghanistan index.)’


‘Those gains would count for less if they had come at a major strategic cost—as was the case in Iraq, where the deposition of Saddam Hussein cleared a path for Iran’s domination of the region. But none of the people I spoke to for this article cited any comparable strategic cost in Afghanistan. No American adversary was strengthened; to the contrary, ambitions of rivals like Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia were blocked. No allies were alienated; to the contrary, four dozen countries had joined the campaign by 2014, and 36 countries, from Albania to Ukraine, were still contributing forces as of February, according to NATO. If anything, the operation strengthened NATO and America’s alliances. “It was remarkable how much the NATO coalition held throughout this thing,” O’Hanlon said.
All of that is before reckoning the Big Payoff, which is not what you see but what you don’t see: For 20 years, there has been no major attack on the U.S. homeland.
When President George W. Bush launched the attack on the Taliban, the aim he announced was to “disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” That aim was accomplished. Bases, soldiers on the ground, copious intelligence, and a friendly government allowed the U.S. to effectively incapacitate al-Qaida & Co. “Afghanistan is where the [terrorist] center of gravity was,” O’Hanlon said. “I think you have to say that the safety of the homeland since 9/11 is largely a byproduct of the Afghanistan mission. You have to count the fact that we haven’t been attacked again since 9/11 in any major way on U.S. soil as a huge success.”’

Read the article here.

Rauch has some reasonable things to say, but the mission of George W. Bush was accomplished within weeks after the beginning of the war. The last decades of war in Afghanistan were mostly called nation building. The last mission was mostly a failure.

More electricity, more schools, well yes. But I’m doubtful whether the Afghans themselves are so positive over the accomplishments of American-led operations. Keep in mind that most Afghan interpreters working for the NATO cannot wait to leave the country.

So, Iraq was a failure, because of Iran, Afghanistan a modest success.

I don’t believe that the lack of terrorist activity in the West is mainly because of American military activity in Afghanistan. No, there are trends. Kidnapping airplanes was sexy, not anymore. Sure, heightened airport security didn’t help the kidnappers but still.

Terrorism, bloody mass psychology basically, is not trendy anymore.

Activities of security services play an important role, but no security service can prevent all attacks. As a mean to an end terrorism turned out to be a rather weak mean, except for rightwing politicians in Europe and the US and elsewhere.

As to Vietnam, yes, many American and European tourists have Vietnam on their destiny list, me included, but it’s a bit haughty of Rauch to not mention the 2 million civilians who died on both sides during the war. Perhaps he is implying that they died for tourism. A steep price for an adventurous vacation because Miami Beach is getting dull.

What Iraq and Afghanistan proved is that no military strategy can compensate the lack of political strategy. For more on this, see: Israel.

And last: Biden had no choice.

Invade first, think about the future of the country after military victory. No. Soviet-Union – Afghanistan (1979), Israel – Lebanon (1982), USA – Afghanistan (2001).

Of course, you can be lucky.

Who knows what would have happened in Lebanon had Bashir not been killed.

But betting is for gamblers.

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