WELL, IT was a just war in the beginning, and it is worth remembering why. It wasn’t because the Taliban regime was “harboring” al Qaeda, as President Obama said on Tuesday night. Lots of countries harbor terrorists, and we are not going to war (and should not) with all of them. Afghanistan was different: the Taliban and al Qaeda were full partners, and because of that partnership, al Qaeda enjoyed all the benefits of sovereignty—most important, a territorial base. A military attack aimed at eliminating that base, and its political basis, was therefore justified.
I never felt much sympathy for the people who argued that 9/11 was a criminal incident, not an act of war, and that we should have dealt with it by going to the UN and the ICC. In a differently organized international society, it might have made sense to respond to 9/11 by dialing 911. But in 2001, nobody was there to answer the phone—and that is still true today.
So the decision to go to war was right, but after that the Bush administration did everything wrong:
—it never sent enough troops;
—it fought a proxy war, and our proxies were warlords whose victory did not bode well for the people of Afghanistan;
—it didn’t accept NATO’s offer of help when it was first given but only much later;
—it never invested the necessary resources in social and economic reconstruction after the war–so we thought–was won;
—it supported and relied on an Afghan government that was both corrupt and ineffective;
—and when it turned out that the war wasn’t won, it tried to fight the Taliban resurgence from the air, still without enough soldiers on the ground, and the result was that we killed large numbers of Afghan civilians.
From 2003 to 2008, the president’s attention, and his cabinet’s attention, and then the country’s attention shifted to Iraq, which was said to be strategically more important. And that was another—perhaps fatal—mistake.
During his campaign, Obama promised to correct these mistakes: he would get us out of Iraq, and he would focus on Afghanistan. That is what he has tried to do and what he was still trying to do with his West Point speech. He has replaced the people who did everything wrong in Afghanistan with people who are trying to do everything right.
But it may be too late. After all the mistakes, the cost of “winning”—significantly reducing the strength of the Taliban, stimulating local resistance, training a national army, working with Pakistan to shut down al Qaeda havens across the border—may now be too high. The number of troops that would be necessary to “win” may be far greater than the number the president has committed and far greater than the American people would be willing to commit. And if that is true, then the continuation of the war can’t be justified—for it is one of the key criteria of a just war that there be a realistic possibility of achieving a just peace.
BUT THERE is one strong argument for undertaking the effort Obama has called for that he didn’t make and that may be more compelling than the strategic arguments he did make. It’s a moral and political argument about what we owe the Afghan people eight years after we invaded their country.
Things have not gotten better for most Afghans in those years, and for many of them, who live in the battle zones or who endure the rapaciousness of government officials, things have probably gotten much worse. At the same time, however, there have been some gains, in parts of the countryside and in the more secure cities. American and European NGOs have been doing good work in areas like public health, health care, and education. Schools have opened, and teachers have been recruited, for some two million girls. Organizations of many different sorts, including trade unions and women’s groups, have sprung up in a new, largely secular, civil society. A version of democratic politics has emerged, radically incomplete but valuable still. And all the people involved in these different activities would be at risk—at risk for their lives—if the United States simply withdrew. Given everything we did wrong in Afghanistan, the work of these people—democrats, feminists, union activists, and teachers—is a small miracle worth defending against the Taliban resurgence.
Indeed, I think we have an obligation to do that–and I also think that most of these people would agree (they should be asked). And it is here that there is a realistic possibility of success: the cities can be held, civil society fostered, and NGO projects in the countryside protected, even with fewer troops than the president has committed. But for this work there is no obvious end; a year and a half won’t be enough.
What should we make of the larger military effort? I am not the best judge of the strategic and geopolitical reasons that lie behind it, which obviously have a lot to do with Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. If our generals and diplomats are really trying to do everything right (stop killing civilians, work locally, disown corrupt officials, emphasize social and economic reconstruction), we should probably support them for a while. Here Obama’s deadline makes sense, and we have to hope that he is working on Plan B—how to cut back the military effort if things are not going well in the summer of 2011.
Ultimately, we will stay or leave for strategic reasons, but liberals and leftists have to insist that those aren’t the only reasons. We also have to think about the moral obligations we have incurred by choosing to fight in someone else’s country.
Michael Walzer is Dissent‘s co-editor. He and Nicolaus Mills edited the Dissent-Penn Press book, Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq.