President Obama cannot make up his mind on Afghanistan. The “war of necessity” has become the maybe war. And now Republicans are divided over whether we should stay there.
After rightly supporting the initial military intervention in Afghanistan and the continuing intervention in Iraq, conservatives need to go beyond slogans such as “staying the course” and “finishing the job.” Our leaders need to choose thoughtfully. Choose how often to intervene, choose on what basis to intervene, and choose how to intervene effectively.
The U.S. now has the largest military in the world, larger than the militaries of all other countries combined. This is a good thing and not a bad one, as some on the left would have us believe. However, the finest military in the world will not remain so if we engage in long interventions all over the globe.
When we contemplate choosing one intervention, we must ask whether this will leave our military weaker when another, perhaps more urgent threat arises. Will keeping well over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan for years (yes, this means doing lots more than Obama’s half-in, half-out approach) leave us militarily strong enough to take on Iran and/or North Korea, which pose far greater nuclear and terrorist threats? Will it leave us able to intervene when a large number of al-Qaeda adherents (far larger than the hundred or so in Afghanistan) threaten to attack our homeland or our allies, as they are doing in Yemen today and perhaps other countries tomorrow?
Ancient Athens had military supremacy but diverted so many resources to invasions of Sicily and other islands that it was unable to defend itself against the alliance led by Sparta. Nazi Germany had the world’s most effective military but lost its chances for victory by fighting a war on two fronts. To remain credible we must pick and choose.
The best example of picking and choosing where and where not to employ our military is President Reagan in the 1980s. After more than two hundred Marines died when a truck bomb hit their barracks, the president decided to cut our losses and withdraw from terrorist-plagued Lebanon. And it is a good thing Reagan did. If we had then adopted the present arguments of some Republicans for “staying the course,” we might today still be fighting and nation-building in that strife-torn country — and, with the draining of our strength, losing more and more military credibility.
What is the basis for choosing where our military should be employed for years? This requires clear thinking not just about our initial interventions but about what constitutes a long-term national strategic interest justifying a long-term intervention.
Iraq is a strategic interest; Afghanistan is not. Iraq produces a needed natural resource, oil; Afghanistan produces opium. Iraq sits astride a waterway with large military and commercial traffic; Afghanistan is landlocked. Most important, what happens with Iraq’s government will arguably affect the peaceful and democratic inclinations of its neighbors. No one argues that what happens with Afghanistan’s government will affect what happens in Turkmenistan.
Oh, yes — we are told that what happens in Afghanistan will affect Pakistan. But while Pakistan influences Afghanistan, where is the evidence that the reverse is true? A Taliban government existed in Afghanistan for a decade, a Soviet-imposed government for a decade before that, and a monarchy still earlier. Yet Pakistan has changed little in that time. It has the same sort of corrupt, military-oriented government that takes our billions in return for our hope that bribes will keep it from doing something — just what is not exactly clear. If Islamic extremists gain control of Pakistan’s nukes, it will not be because of Afghanistan but because of the internal failures of Pakistan.