The Afghanistan conundrum

Posted by Gerald Lewis

Why are we still in Afghanistan, asks Older Is Wiser's Englishman In New York, Gerald Lewis, and would we be better or worse off if we got out now?

Here are some reasons for getting out: The war will cost the US over $100 billion in 2010 and, by the end of 2011, will have cost nearly half a trillion dollars. Polling data shows that the US public is strongly against the war. The Afghan government is highly corrupt. Our forces there are considered infidels and occupiers. And what is the rationale for our being there? I wish I knew. Perhaps our leaders know something they can’t reveal, but the case has not been made. 

In this connection my personal Older is Wiser credentials include being a member of The Thursday Group – a small gatherting of retired senior business executives, educators and professional men who meet every other Thursday to try to solve the world’s problems. We don’t arrive at many conclusions but, although our views span the political spectrum, we respect and learn from each other about different approaches to the same issues as well as about what is happening in the world around us.

In November 2009 the group came to its only ever unanimous conclusion. It concerned Afghanistan and resulted in our all signing and sending a letter to President Obama, which I am excerpting as follows: .

“In this letter we want to express our concern that you may be about to approve an increase in troops for Afghanistan rather than planning an orderly withdrawal. We strongly believe that there is no sound reason for our being there and that It is a war that we can neither win nor afford. In the speech that General McChrystal delivered in London in October [2009] he extensively discussed what is necessary to deal with the situation on the ground. However, he only devoted two short paragraphs, at the very end, to the rationale for the mission - under the heading "Why Bother?" - in which he mentioned Al Qaeda just once, as follows: "I believe that the loss of stability in Afghanistan brings a huge risk that transnational terrorists such as Al Qaeda will operate from within Afghanistan again. 

“Dealing with Al Qaeda and the threat of international terrorism to the US must be a high priority item on your agenda. But, since it has been your stated reason for our being in Afghanistan, McChrystal’s own rationale seems to undermine his troop request. To be sure, Al Qaeda may return there, but they clearly don’t need to, as they have demonstrated by carrying out many terrorist attacks around the world since they left. So what is the justification for our continuing to be there, much less pouring in 40,000 additional troops?

“We are aware of the Al Qaeda problems that need to be addressed in Pakistan - but we also know that we are considered by many in that part of the world as infidels, and that our very presence in Afghanistan exacerbates the hostility towards us – so we fail to see how escalation in Afghanistan can possibly be the best way to deal with Al Qaeda in Pakistan. There must be other ways to deal with these issues at far less cost and risk. And certainly there are better ways of using the hundreds of billions of dollars it will cost - such as to help secure our future - rather than pouring it down the AfPak sinkhole.

”We do not minimize the complexity of your decision process. There is no “good” Afghanistan solution, but there is a better resolution than prolonging the terrible errors of the past eight years that got us there. So, since we know that you, more than anyone, understand the true costs of escalation in terms of young deaths and destroyed lives, as well as money, we urge you to listen to your instincts, which surely must be to get out of Afghanistan.”

Ten months later, not a thing has happened that would cause me to change my mind. In fact, the conclusion we arrived at then seems even more obvious now. For example, today it is reported that President Karzai and his brother are deeply involved in the corrupt Kabul bank, which is said to be on the verge of a billion dollar collapse. The New York Times recently renamed the country “Corrupt-istan” In July WikiLeaks released an archive of 92,000 reports documenting details of the Afghanistan situation from 2004 through 2009 and showing that the Taliban are now stronger there than they have been at any time since 2001.

Even the progress in achieving results from the dramatic build-up of American troops in Afghanistan seems to have faltered. The offensive in Marja in Spring 2010 fell far short of its stated goals. The offensive now starting in Kandahar, for which it was to be a dress rehearsal, appears to be considerably less than was advertised. It is reported that a $250 million program to lure low-level Taliban fighters away from the insurgency has so far resulted in only $200 thousand having been spent by the US - and nothing from the large donations promised by foreign backers. As a result the flow of Taliban fighters to our side has slowed from 9,000 in the past 5 years to 100 since April., of course, America is slowly beginning to recover from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression over 70 years ago - and simply cannot afford $100 billion a year for a war. In a new book The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era  Michael Mandelbaum, of Johns Hopkins University, argues that one of the things the US has to do to get back on track financially is to set priorities in foreign policy and to distinguish between what is vital and what is desirable. Thus, even if you feel that staying in Afghanistan is desirable – and I don’t – I have yet to hear anyone making the case that it is vital.

So the conundrum is why, after so much thought and consideration (to say nothing of the letter to The White House from the Thursday Group – which received only a form-letter reply) did President Obama decide to double up on Afghanistan, when a number of his top advisors, including Vice-President Biden, were urging him to withdraw? Could it be that, as a new president, he was overwhelmed by the power of the military brass, whose job it is to fight wars? Could it be that that his lack of seasoning as a senior executive caused his brilliant mind to resolve the decision in favor of the facts as presented, even though his instincts told him it was wrong?

That is something that no member of the Thursday Group could be accused of doing. We are long on seasoning, even though some of minds may be beginning to lose their luster.

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Afghanistan war

The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the threat posed by Islamist fundamentalism is offered as the main reason for the continued involvement of coalition combat troops in the region. With an annual cost to the US of £100billion and escalating numbers of dead and maimed among the coalition, has the time come to leave the country to govern itself?

  1. 50% Yes
  2. 33% No
  3. 16% Undecided
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