Afghanistan war reconsidered

28 October 2006, 2103 EDT

Rob Farley of LGM has a thoughtful “web exclusive” article up at The American Prospect that everyone here should read. Here’s his question:

Does the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan hold up in retrospect, or have our difficulties there belied the wisdom of this war in the same way the disastrous occupation of Iraq has underscored the folly of that one?

Again, I urge everyone to read the entire piece.

That does not, however, stop me from offering this spoiler: Rob thinks that the decision to go to war was correct and that progressives were right to support it. Most of the essay elaborates on this sound reasoning.

Thinking back to 2001, I believed there was a reasonable case for toppling the Taliban directly rooted in the September 11 attacks. I did have some doubts about the US trying to fight another war primarily with air power. Remember, it was not a “target-rich environment.” Moreover, and this too is related to the tactical decision-making, I was very much concerned that the US was not putting sufficient boots on the ground. Still, like most people, I cheered when Kabul fell and the Taliban was apparently defeated.

That said, note that anyone paying close attention in 2001 knew that the US was screwing up at Tora Bora. Contemporary news accounts reported that 2/3 of the bad guys were fleeing the scene and that US special forces were merely “directing” Afghan fighters and calling in air strikes. It was a dubious way to find the world’s most wanted man and destroy his forces.

Additionally, as Rob notes, the Iraq war became much more than a distraction as numerous resources were moved from one theater into the other throughout 2002. Most of the details were not revealed until well into 2003, but anyone paying attention to the global debate could see that it was fracturing the large “war on terror” coalition that the US built quickly during fall 2001.

Major European powers were opposed to attacking Iraq and there was very little enthusiasm among the developing states. Moreover, the European doubts were voiced early and often — in response to the “axis of evil” speech in January 2002 and to the “Bush Doctrine” speeches and strategy statements trickling out throughout that year.

The last issue actually captured my scholarly attention for quite some time — and Rob has to some extent overlooked the elephant in the room when discussing Afghanistan. The 2001 war was essentially retaliatory and consistent with longstanding norms about self defense. The Iraq war, in stark contrast, set a reckless precedent for preventive war that is still damaging American foreign policy to this day.

After all, the “Iraq Syndrome” is not merely going to limit domestic and international enthusiasm for potentially dubious wars. It will likely also constrain the American use of force when it might genuinely be necessary. And to the extent that prospective foes can readily see this (think North Korea or Iran), it might embolden them to take undesirable actions that they would not have taken even a few years ago.

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