Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Afghanistan: Our Unaffordable War to Nowhere

The Reasons We Should Leave



Absent Prerequisites for War

"War on Terror" is Oxymoron

Cost of Wars

The Powell Doctrine


Nicholas Johnson's Additional Writing on War and Terrorism

Some Recent Afghanistan-Related General Media News and Opinion

The shorthand for President Obama's foreign policy? "Don't do stupid stuff."[Christi Parsons, Kathleen Hennessey and Paul Richter, "Obama Argues Against Use of Force to Solve Global Conflicts," Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2014.]

Our 16-years-long military efforts in Afghanistan qualify as "stupid stuff." The list of reasons is long, and has been discussed in a variety of contexts by me since 2001, illustrated in the 23 examples linked below. So I'll try to keep this short.

-- Sam Cooke, "What a Wonderful World" ("Don't know much about history . . ..")

History. We fail to learn from history. When it comes to war, we go where "no nation has won before."

France had been interested in Vietnam since the 17th and 18th Centuries, ultimately creating a large colony (French Indochina) in 1887 which it ruled until defeated by the Vietnamese in the First Indochina War [1946-1954]. ["France-Vietnam Relations," Wikipedia.] Never mind. We're not French. Those Vietnamese won't be able to defeat our military might. Remember how that worked out for us?

And so it's been in Afghanistan.

"Great Britain and Russia [were] maneuvering for influence in Afghanistan" as early as 1826. The British brought military force to Afghanistan on three occasions: 1839-1842, 1878-1889, and 1919. None ended well for the British.
Following the 1839-1842 conflict, "The Afghans. . . would tolerate neither a foreign occupation nor a king imposed on them by a foreign power, . . . insurrections broke out" and ultimately the British were run out of the country. The outcome of the second Afghan War was a little more complicated, but ended with the murder of the British envoy, and a joint effort of Britain and Russia to draw what are today's Afghanistan boundaries.
After the 1919 war, Britain had to recognize Afghanistan's independence, and Afghanistan was one of the first states to recognize the Soviet Union (with a treaty of friendship). That "special relationship" lasted until the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Editors, "Anglo-Afghan Wars," Encyclopedia Britannica.

Russia (Soviet Union) was involved militarily in Afghanistan from 1955 to 1989. "The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Response, 1978–1980," Department of State, Office of the Historian, Milestones: 1977-1980 ("Since 1955 Moscow had provided military training and materiel to Afghanistan; by 1973, a third of active [Afghan] troops had trained on Soviet soil.")

The results for the Russians were little better than for the British. "The War" lasted from December 1979 to February 1989. "Soviet-Afghan War," Wikipedia.

And with what results?
"In the brutal nine-year conflict, an estimated one million civilians were killed, as well as 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers. Civil war raged after the withdrawal, setting the stage for the Taliban's takeover of the country in 1996."
Alan Taylor, "The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989," The Atlantic, August 4, 2014 (includes 41 large photos).

Absent Prerequisites for War. Might there be some common themes in why Great Britain, Russia, and the United States have been so unsuccessful over the past 200 years in trying to conduct "wars" in Afghanistan? Let's see.

In addition to our refusal to study history, and our hubris in believing we have a level of smarts and military might denied all other countries, it's as if we don't recognize that war1 is not war2 -- all wars are not the same. You can't expect to win wars you launch willy-nilly, wherever, whenever, with whomever you choose. There are conditions and characteristics that make for wars' successful, and unsuccessful, likely outcomes.

It's best if your military effort is a response to your country being attacked (e.g., Revolutionary War; World War II). Next best is coming to the defense of another country that has been invaded (Kuwait in Gulf War I). Worst are unnecessary, "pre-emptive" attacks on other nations that have not attacked us (e.g., Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan).

Why? Think about it. If Iowa had a 200-year-history of Canadian military invasions from time to time, and Canadian tanks and military were now moving, uninvited, through Minnesota, toward Iowa -- regardless of their pretense for doing so -- even I would be picking up a gun. The Canadians would have a hard time "winning Iowans' hearts and minds." Similarly, when we create a war inside a country with a centuries-old history of foreign invaders, it's not unreasonable for those whose home it is to think of us as just the latest in that history, and respond as Iowans would to Canadians.

Obviously, supporting one side in another country's civil war is even worse. There's no way it can be universally popular ("a British shipyard [built] two warships for the Confederacy . . . over vehement protests from the US." "United Kingdom and the American Civil War" Wikipedia.org.)

Fighting in countries where most Americans know little or nothing about that country's language, culture, economy, history, politics, literature, religion, social structure, and geography -- such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- is bristling with unintended consequences that make "winning" somewhere between extraordinarily difficult and impossible (as distinguished from the European Theatre of WWII).

"War on Terror" is Oxymoron." Whatever "terror" may be, it is not a country, or even a tightly coordinated group of individuals. Of course, every country seeks to minimize the death and damage to its citizens and property from acts of violence. But were the deliberate human and property damage in Oklahoma City, Boston, and Charlottesville really part of a "war"? The literary license in labeling anti-violence efforts a "war" is questionable at best; but strategies and tactics premised on the assumption that it really is "a war" are self-defeating and dangerous.

Wars are best when fought on behalf of, or against, countries rather than failed states; countries with some semblance of an organized central government -- more like Germany in WWII, rather than 21st Century Afghanistan, which is still largely a collection of tribal war lords' fiefdoms.

Wars are best when both sides wear uniforms that distinguish them from each other -- and the surrounding civilian population. The Taliban and ISIS often don't wear uniforms. Without uniforms it's very difficult to tell your enemy from your allies, and civilian casualties mount and further erode support for U.S. forces -- who are easy to identify.

Wars are best when there is a "front line" (as in Europe in WWII). (1) Fighting individuals without uniforms, (2) who can easily blend in with the population, (3) over constantly shifting parcels of land, (4) individuals who can easily shift from one place to another, (5) resulting in our gaining, losing, and regaining once again the same "battlegrounds," is a recipe for our seemingly endless wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, with their ever-increasing death tolls and financial burdens.

Cost of Wars. A year ago, the combined costs of U.S. military actions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan (2001-2016) were estimated at $4.207 trillion ($4.792 trillion minus the Department of Homeland Security budgets). Neta C. Crawford [Boston University], "US Budgetary Costs of Wars through 2016: $4.79 Trillion and Counting; Summary of Costs of the US Wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Homeland Security," Brown University Institute of International & Public Affairs, September 2016.

Because it's hard to imagine that much money, how could we translate $4.2 trillion into its opportunity cost -- the other things we could have bought with it (but weren't able to)? What else could that $4.2 trillion have paid for? Here are some possibilities: a 35-year program of tuition-free college at public universities, or health insurance premiums for every American for 12 years, or wiping out all student loan and credit card debt while leaving an additional $2 trillion for rebuilding infrastructure, or a fund to pay for rebuilding after the damage from the next 41 major tropical storms. Ethan Wolff-Mann, "7 Amazing Things America Could Have Bought Instead of a $1.45 Trillion Jet," Money, May 2, 2016 (if you care, and can't follow my math, email me for an explanation).

While I believe the Brown University and Money magazine numbers do not distort the reality, even with the best of intentions precision in these matters is impossible. For starters, what do you count? The numbers do not seem to include the post-war costs of such things as rebuilding the infrastructure we've destroyed in war (such as the post-WWII Marshall Plan), lifetime healthcare for wounded combat veterans, the consequences from the opportunity costs mentioned above. If you include the costs in the war torn countries (as I think we should), although worse than economic numbers convey, what tort law calls the "pain and suffering" of the population, the survivors who have lost their primary income provider, not to mention their homes, the wounded, dying and dead, the children denied food, shelter, and education -- not to mention parents -- would be enormous. [Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense.]

Even if we could agree on what costs to include, determining what they were is virtually impossible with a Defense Department that is so sloppy in its accounting that it is impossible to audit. "The Department of Defense . . . once again finds itself under intense scrutiny . . . because it couldn't account for more than a trillion dollars in financial transactions, not to mention dozens of tanks, missiles and planes." Tom Abate, "Military Waste Under Fire / $1 Trillion Missing -- Bush Plan Targets Pentagon Accounting," SFGATE, San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 2003.

The Powell Doctrine. There are some basic questions to ask about any rational undertaking -- starting a business, choosing a college and major, planning a vacation trip, building a new home or office building.

The consequences of failing to do so can lead to physical injury, financial disaster or bankruptcy, or merely great disappointment.

In the case of war, the consequences can be much more serious, as the discussion above suggests. This is not to say that there are never acceptable reasons for going to war, or maintaining overwhelming military might as a strategy for avoiding the need to go to war. It is only to say that, if you prepare and use a checklist before packing the car and going on a family vacation, you might also want to have and use a checklist before going to war.

Here is a variation of the ways I've summarized that checklist of questions in the past -- sort of my version of the Powell Doctrine:
  • Is the national security of our homeland seriously threatened?

  • What, specifically, is the goal you’re trying to accomplish?

  • What nonviolent means might accomplish the goal, and have they all been tried and failed?

  • Why do you think a military operation will contribute to (rather than impede) the accomplishment of the goal?

  • In a benefit-cost analysis, what are the risks, what are the costs (including opportunity costs), what will a military mission require in troops, materiel, lives and treasure to achieve that goal, and what will be the benefits for the United States?

  • What is a reasonble projection of how long the military mission will take to achieve the goal?

  • Are the American people, their representatives, and the international community prepared to take those risks, provide those resources and pay those costs for as long as it takes?

  • What are the probabilities that a military intervention will make matters worse?

  • What are the metrics or other means to inform us whether we’ve ever been “successful”?

  • What, then, will be the exit strategy?

  • What will happen when we leave?

  • Will that be consistent with our original mission?
  • See, e.g., "General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006 (sub-heading "War: Military Control of the Civilians and the Powell Doctrine"); also as Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know, ch. 6 "You As Citizen II: Terrorism and War," p. 61, and see, Stephen M. Walt, "Applying the 8 Questions of the Powell Doctrine to Syria," Foreign Policy, September 3, 2013.

    Conclusion. I could go on with this -- indeed the list below suggests I already have. Why? Because President Trump -- after opposing our war in Afghanistan for years -- has recently announced that it will be perpetuated by his Administration. In fact, he wants to send even more troops and taxpayer money into the hopeless pit.

    A "war" in Afghanistan was a mistake from the very beginning. If we were trying to punish the state most involved in 9/11 it was Saudi Arabia -- the country that supplied both the financing and the participants. But the U.S. didn't want to declare war on Saudi Arabia after 9/11 any more than it wanted to bomb Idaho after Oklahoma City. So we chose Afghanistan instead.

    It was argued that Afghanistan was "harboring terrorists." But any near-failed state can and does do that. To totally eliminate terrorist training in Afghanistan (1) would require more like 200,000 to 300,000 American troops (as I, and others, suggested at the time; clearly President Obama's 100,000 weren't enough) -- if even that would do it. (2) Our efforts to do that turn out to be counterproductive: our mere presence in the Middle East only intensifies anti-American feelings and terrorist recruiting. (3) Terrorists can, and do, easily move from one part of the world to another. If we drove them all out of Afghanistan they would not disappear, they would merely relocate -- as they now have in at least 70 countries. "Michael Evans" "Al-Qaeda finds three safe havens for terror training" The Times (of London), July 2, 2008 ("Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organisation, driven out of Afghanistan and defeated in Iraq, is re-emerging in strength in three alternative safe havens for training, operational planning and recruiting – Pakistan, Somalia and Algeria – according to Western intelligence and defence sources").

    To the best of my recollection, no American official has declared that our real motive for staying in Afghanistan is to plunder it's resources. I raised this possibility in "Why Afghanistan? Think Oil & Gas," September 25, 2009. Rachel Maddow recently suggested it might be our search for a source of the rare earth element Lanthanum (LA); transcript not yet posted. (If we were in Afghanistan for rare earth elements, however, we've been a little late. While we were sending troops the Chinese were sending negotiators, and have by now pretty much cornered all the supplies in Afghanistan's rare earth market.)

    In summary, the politicians pursuit of our Afghanistan War has ignored virtually all of the Powell Doctrine checklist. We never should have entered Afghanistan in the first place. As soon as that was obvious we should have left. Having failed to do so for 16 years, it is a very expensive tragedy (in lost lives and opportunities to fund what America really does need) that our current president has gone against his earlier instincts and is sending more troops to keep it going.

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    Nicholas Johnson's Additional Writing on War and Terrorism

    "Spending on Military Always Comes at al Cost," The Gazette, April 9, 2017, p. D5, embedded in "Of Missiles and Teachers," April 7, 2017

    "Focus on Muslims Misplaced After Shooting," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 17, 2016, p. A5

    Understanding Terrorist Thugs," The Daily Iowan, December 3, 2015; "What Motivates Terrorist Thugs," The Gazette, December 20, 2015,

    Nicholas Johnson, "Sober Risk Assessment Needed to Respond to Terror," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 28, 2015, p. A11; and as "Sober Risk Assessment Needed to Respond to Terror," Standard-Times [San Angelo, Texas], November 28, 2015

    Nicholas Johnson, "Syria's Refugees: Job One and Job Two," The Gazette, November 1, 2015

    "Why Unwinnable 'Wars' Are 'Stupid Stuff;' Add 'Impossible to Win' to Objections to War With ISIS," September 23, 2014

    "Six Step Program for Avoiding War," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 11, 2014, p. A7

    "Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS? Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands," September 19, 2014

    " Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III; Why Do We Accept Words Like 'Islam,' 'State,' and 'Caliphate'?" September 16, 2014

    "Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7; embedded in " Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" September 10, 2014

    "Syria: Moral Imperatives and Rational Analyses; Spotting the Issues," September 4, 2013

    "Thinking About War -- Before Starting One," March 20, 2013

    "Terrorism, War, 9/11 and Looking Within," September 10, 2011

    "War in Libya, the Unanswered Questions," March 23, 2011

    "General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006; also as Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know, ch. 6 "You As Citizen II: Terrorism and War," p. 61

    "War in Iraq: The Military Objections," International Law Talks: War With Iraq, University of Iowa College of Law, February 27, 2003

    "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6

    Nicholas Johnson, "Capitalists Can Help U.S. Avert War with Iraq," Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sunday Insight, October 6, 2002, p. A11

    Nicholas Johnson, "On Iraq, Tell the Rest of the Story," Iowa City Gazette, October 2, 2002, p. A4

    Nicholas Johnson, "Let's not get between Iraq and a hard place," Omaha World-Herald, August 13, 2002 (and as published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen and as submitted to both)

    Nicholas Johnson, "Search for Better Response Than War; Don't Reward the Terrorists, but Understand Their Interests," Des Moines Sunday Register Opinion/Iowa View, June 30, 2002, p. OP3

    Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Terrorism," National Lawyers Guild Conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, March 2, 2002

    "Teach Our Children Tolerant Ways," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 25, 2001, p. 9A

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    Some Recent Afghanistan-Related General Media News and Opinion

    Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, "Forceful Chief of Staff Grates on Trump, and the Feeling Is Mutual," New York Times, September 2, 2017, p. A1

    Micah Zenko, "Bush and Obama Fought a Failed 'War on Terror.' It's Trump's Turn." New York Times, August 26, 2017, p. A17

    Mujib Mashal, "Trump's Afghan Gamble Now Rests on General He Doubted," New York Times, August 25, 2017, p. A1

    Mujib Mashal, "U.S. Troop Increase in Afghanistan Is Underway, General Says," New York Times, August 24, 2017

    Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, "Why Afghanistan's War Defies Solutions," New York Times, August 24, 2017, p. A4

    Bret Stephens, "On Afghanistan, There's No Way Out," New York Times, August 24, 2017

    Rod Nordland, "What an Afghanistan Victory Looks Like Under the Trump Plan," New York Times, August 23, 2017, p. A1

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