I would first highlight the tension between PoliticalProf’s first two paragraphs. I say “tension” rather than “contradiction” because I mostly agree with these first two paragraphs.3
The Taliban are unspeakably vile. So are the Lord’s Republican Army in Congo. The Assad regime in Syria. The monstrosities that run Equatorial Guinea and Burma and North Korea.
It is simply not the United States’ job—nor is it within its capacity—to fix all the evils in the world. More, the notion that we have a sacrosanct ability to understand what is best for others is a trope at best, and colonialism at worst. In any case, there are going to be lots of evil places in the world the US doesn’t try to “fix”; Afghanistan doesn’t have to make the special list of beneficiaries of American wonderfulness.
The Taliban are unspeakably vile but we don’t have a sacrosanct ability to understand what is best for others? It’s true—we need to be extremely careful when passing judgment on other countries and other cultures. Not everyone does things the same way we do. Self-determination is important, even when it doesn’t reach the conclusions we would like.
But with that said, the Taliban are unspeakably vile. We can practice some level of cultural humility in accepting some practices we’re uncomfortable with. But we can draw a line before “unspeakably vile.” We may not know what is best for Afghanistan—but it’s not the Taliban.
I think we can agree that all else equal, the world would be a better place without the Taliban running Afghanistan. The part of PoliticalProf’s argument I don’t understand is why the existence of other horrible regimes affects our obligations toward the regime in question.4 If continued intervention in Afghanistan were acceptable if the Taliban were a singularly evil regime, why does it become less acceptable because there are other regimes that are comparably evil? If PoliticalProf were to say that the opportunity cost of fighting the Taliban means that we can’t take any action against the Lord’s Resistance Army, I would understand his argument.
War means death. If you order a BLT sandwich, don’t act surprised when it comes with bacon in it. Bacon is an integral part of a BLT. You got exactly what you ordered. Support for war is support for death. You don’t get to choose who dies. Many of the dead will be non-combatants. Some will be children.
I don’t want anything in this post to trivialize, understate, or excuse any of the horrors of war. Those we kill or fail to protect are also every bit as human and every bit as important as you and I are. Their families mourn their deaths just as our families would our mourn deaths. A lesser evil is still evil.
Nor do I intend to criticize anybody’s condemnation of those we kill. If the political cost of killing civilians is sufficiently high, perhaps we’ll try harder not to kill civilians. This has certainly worked in the past. We no longer firebomb cities. Our weapons are increasingly precise. Again, a lesser evil is still evil.
I do, however, want to explain both why I haven’t been more vocal in condemning President Obama’s continued use of drone strikes along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and why I don’t consider a strict anti-interventionist policy to be a morally superior policy.
Reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace.
Besides that whole genocide thing, yeah, why wouldn’t we make peace with them?
Ugh. I fucking detest this. I don’t think we should make peace with them. Their existence is the antithesis of peace.
I would like to get a few other people’s thoughts both on Clinton’s quote and to this reaction to it. The Taliban have a really, really ugly past. They also have an ugly present. But if “their existence is the antithesis of peace,” we’ve got serious quandary. The options appear to be:
- No peace ever.
- Kill everybody whose existence is antithetical to peace
If we’re against genocide, that second point is a real problem. Do we have an obligation to violently respond to past atrocity? Can we accept a level of continuing atrocity in the name of peace? I don’t see this as an easy question.
I hear we should withdraw from Afghanistan for the sake of the Afghan people.
I hear we should stay in Afghanistan for the sake of the Afghan people.
Whatever we do in Afghanistan, we should do it for the sake of the Afghan people. But whatever we do, that won’t be the primary reason we do it. If we stay, it will be mostly because we’re afraid of losing face and losing international standing. If we go, it will be mostly because we’re sick of our involvement in an intractable mess and want to get out out of the headlines. If we leave it will because we’re sick of being part of a war—not because we want peace. The war will continue with out us. And it will get more brutal.
We got ourselves into Afghanistan because we were afraid and angry. And whether we stay or go, we’ll do it because we are afraid and angry.
Is there anything good to say about our action in Afghanistan? Maybe. Our constant efforts to paint our attacks and withdrawals in a humanitarian light at least shows that we’re, collectively, trying to persuade ourselves to care if we do the right thing. We just shouldn’t believe we’ve succeeded. And we shouldn’t think that trying to do the right thing hasn’t been worth it. Whether or not we’ve been helpful collectively, individual actions have helped. And, since we our selfish motives are fairly balanced, maybe our better motives will make the difference.
The knee-jerk reactions to Time Magazine’s cover of a mutilated woman have been … telling. The heart-wrenching image of Aisha, whose nose and ears were cut off by order of the Taliban when she tried to flee abuse affects us. It should affect us. And we would be better served by reflecting on what it means in the context of our continued war effort than to scramble to fit it into our preconceptions.
Who are our allies?
In Afghanistan, we’re supporting Karzai, who looks increasingly autocratic and incompetent. It looks like his last election was clumsily and blatantly stolen. Of course, if there is a run-off that goes more smoothly (or even elects somebody else), we wouldn’t have to be (as) worried about supporting a wholly illegitimate regime.
In Pakistan, we’re finally seeing some commitment to deal with the Taliban. Pakistan doesn’t seem to be thrilled that we’re sending drones to bomb their country—but they also don’t seem to be as angry as they could be. In fact, Pakistan seems to have gotten a whole lot more serious about fighting the Taliban than they were a few years ago.
Our international support is also wavering. If we increase our troop commitment, will other countries reciprocate—or will they simply pull out? What commitment do we have to our allies?
What is the goal?
There are a whole lot of possible goals—and I’m not sure what our primary objectives are? Are we simply trying to kill dangerous terrorists? (And are there any big targets left in Afghanistan?) Are we fighting the Taliban? (And if so, why?) Are we denying safe-havens to international terror? (And can we do that more efficiently) Are we rebuilding Afghanistan? (If so, why, and how long do we want to prop it up?) Are we eradicating poppies? Are our goals purely selfish—and would they be satisfied by leaving Afghanistan in an intractable civil war?
What is the probability of success?
Goals are great—but achievable goals are better. Occupying Afghanistan is, historically, a bad idea. Do we have a good reason to think that things will go better in the future? Is a new strategy likely to work better than the old one?
What are the costs?
We’ve spent a lot of money recently on ill-advised wars. How long are we going to keep doing that? Even worse, a lot of people are dying. Of course, if we simply pulled out, this wouldn’t bring peace to Afghanistan. We would still have massacres—and we would still bear some responsibility. What are the costs of staying? What are the costs of leaving?
Drunken brawls, prostitutes, hazing and humiliation, taking vodka shots out of buttcracks— no, the perpetrators of these Animal House-like antics aren’t some depraved frat brothers. They are the private security contractors guarding Camp Sullivan, otherwise known as the US Embassy in Kabul.