by James A. Russell
The sight of Afghans lining up in droves on April 5 to cast their ballots braving threats of violence offers us some heartening images in a world that seems awash in bad news with Russia’s destructive behavior, continued anarchy and death in Syria, and other parts of the world teetering dangerously on the precipice between peace and war.
The pictures coming out of Afghanistan may partially salve the wounds of those that bore the brunt — and paid for — the 13-year war waged by the West against the Taliban. Those estimated 7 million Afghans that lined up to vote clearly deserve the sympathy, admiration, and respect of the international community.
Curiously, however, the images of those brave Afghans made me think of a famous quote attributed to Napoleon at some point in the early 19th century, in which he is said to have pointedly asked: “What’s the war about?”
We may draw comfort from the storyline being reported on the Afghan elections, but is that what the war was about?
The understandably favorable press coverage of the Afghan elections in some ways diverts our attention from the more troubling and largely unexamined aspects of America’s decade-plus of war in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost more than a trillion dollars, led to over a million refugees, and thousands dead and maimed civilians and soldiers.
How is it that what started out as a straightforward, punitive expedition to go after the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks became the most ambitious experiment in social and political engineering and the longest war in American history? When did we decide to do this, exactly? Did we think about the potential costs of such an ambitious effort and, perhaps most important, did we ever ask ourselves whether the stakes in Afghanistan justified the magnitude of the effort?
To be sure, it is not unknown for policy goals in wars to become inflated and/or changed so fundamentally as to bear little relationship to the initial reasons for the war. What started out in August 1914 as a war of Serbian independence gradually morphed its way into a war to contain Germany and then became the war to end all wars. In Vietnam, what began as war against communism in southeast Asia evolved into yet another grand experiment in social engineering that then became joined at the hip with the idea of “peace with honor,” which needlessly extended the war’s carnage.
More recently, the US invasion of Iraq must be considered a poster board of this phenomenon, in which we cycled through at least a dozen post-invasion war objectives before settling on another grand and misguided social engineering project.
A disturbing feature of the Afghan and Iraq wars was that the enemy had little to do with the inflation of our policy goals over the course of our involvement. They resisted our presence simply because we were occupying their countries. In both of those wars, the enemy imposed no new or distinctive political requirements on us that forced us to inflate our policy goals beyond all recognition. The undeniable truth is that we imposed these inflated goals upon ourselves and did so with little apparent deliberation, debate, or thought.
How did this happen? Seeking an answer is certainly worthy of debate and discussion — even if we are forced to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves. It’s hard not to point a finger at what has become the feckless nature of American politics, today dominated by rigid ideology on the right, money, and special interests, all of which have led to the disintegration of common sense across party lines in foreign and domestic policy.
This fractured domestic political landscape in some ways paralleled the broken decision-making process that governed strategy and foreign policy after 9/11, which produced decisions with catastrophic consequences to American interests and objectives around the world. In this environment, soldiers were sent off to war for made up reasons by ideologues that were never challenged in a democracy that is based on a system of checks and balances. We lacked political and military leaders and a public that paid close attention while demanding no answers to Napoleon’s timeless question.
As for the Afghan elections — we should all be glad that Afghans are voting, but we should be under no illusions that a successful election means that Afghanistan will develop into a pluralistic political system that solves internal differences peacefully at the ballot box. We can only hope that’s what will happen in a process that may take generations to unfold.
Perhaps more significantly, it is manifestly unclear whether any government in Afghanistan can survive given the malign intentions of Pakistan, which has aided and abetted the Taliban and other insurgent groups with arms, money, training and a safe haven from which to plan their attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan shows no inclination to abandon its plans to destabilize the country despite America’s best efforts to buy it off with billions of dollars over the course of the war.
These are uncertainties that cloud Afghanistan’s future — whatever the outcome of the apparently successful elections. Our inability to address and answer Napoleon’s pointed question about the war in Afghanistan says more about us than those brave Afghans casting their votes for a better future, although we could surely use a little more of their courage in our own democracy.
Photo: Voters line up at a polling station on Jalalabad Road, Kabul city, on April 5, 2014. Credit: Casey Garret Johnson