Afghanistan decision needs some realism about limits
By Georgie Anne Geyer
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
WASHINGTON — When summer ends and autumn begins, one tends to feel instinctively, if foolishly, that other things will end and begin, too. That's certainly not true when it comes to America's far-flung wars.
When President Trump spoke recently on Afghanistan, he posited the choices we face in the war as essentially only two. We could suddenly withdraw, leaving the Middle East in utter chaos, or we could stay in for the long run, adding a small number of American troops and praying for a miracle (and thus also leaving the Middle East in chaos).
I should say for the record that there was a third suggestion. Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater, the private security firm accused of crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, put forward the perfectly amazing idea of contracting a 5,000-man "mercenary" force for Afghanistan. But for some strange reason, the regular military men in the White House were not nice about the idea at all.
Meanwhile, the president went so far as to say: "From now on, victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge."
So, fellow citizens, this is where we are — once again. Our leading military men say repeatedly that we can't "win" in Afghanistan in any conventional sense of the word (and if anyone in Washington actually knows what "winning" would mean, that wisdom has not been shared with any of us). Perhaps London's well-versed The Guardian headlined the situation best: "Afghanistan: unwinnable and unlosable."
But before we get too glum, allow me to suggest that there is another alternative that is not nearly as crazy as Erik Prince's. It is not an easy alternative, and it would not be a painless one for us, much less for the Afghans. But if it truly involved a change in our strategic thinking, it could, I believe, save us from incalculably painful mistakes in the future.
Our problem, exemplified by the Afghan war, is that we are overextended as a nation. We have 800-plus military bases across the world. We have spent at least $1 trillion in Afghanistan, while we are 20 times that amount in debt. We talk about nation-building, but in truth, we are doing more nation-destroying. We claim at every turn to be the arbiter of the world, while we have forgotten how to keep our own cities safe.
This problem is to be found almost everywhere we look. The U.S. Navy has been involved in four accidents this year resulting in the tragic and unnecessary deaths of multiple American sailors in the Pacific and the South China Sea.
The situation was considered so serious that U.S. Navy ships worldwide were ordered to pause their activity so the Navy could investigate whether ships are being overused and whether the deployable battle force, at 277 ships, is smaller than what is needed to meet demand. In short, our Navy is overextended.
Yet the answer to such problems is always to somehow fund more military action, more demand, and never to pause and ask: "What is within our capacity?"
Many immediately jumped into the discussion over Afghanistan, blaming the military. It is easy to say that it's the generals who want war, but that is actually not true. Vietnam was created by civilians filled with ego after American victory in World War II. Iraq and Afghanistan were pushed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was ambitious to have "his" war, and by Vice President Dick Cheney and his group of civilian Pentagon "neocons," who saw attacking Iraq as a means to defend Israel.
Yet even were we to have a president and leaders in the Pentagon and State Department who were not so ambitious for war on their watches, that wouldn't solve today's war in Afghanistan. The only way now to come out of it with some dignity and some minimal sense of a purpose fulfilled is to force the conflict to a negotiated end with the Taliban and the Islamic terrorist groups. Not an easy task, if even possible.
But most important, somewhere along the line — and sooner rather than later — we are going to have to learn how to make better practical and moral choices about our actions in the world.
That fact should be clear to anyone who thinks, in President George H.W. Bush's favorite word, "prudently." And it should also be clear that the great and generous nation we still are will be destroyed if we don't stop and rethink our priorities and, above all, our realistic limits.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.