Field of Science

Can Afghanistan be won?

After reading this article with very anti-troop surge views, I started looking for other views on the subject. Obama will give a speech on Tuesday wherein he is anticipated to order more troops and civilians to Afghanistan, though not as many as requested by General McChrystal, who's the head of the NATO troops in Afghanistan. Still, it's expected to result in an increase of 50% over the number of troops already there (68,000).

Also interesting is this article about how helicopters are crucial in the fight in Afghanistan. Without them, troops can't get around, more roadside bombs will be planted, and fewer wounded troops will get to medics in time. Only recently has more/enough choppers been provided. Only recently...

Still, it would be nice to hear exactly what the goal in Afghanistan is. How will we recognize victory? What will a win look like? The enemy is the Taleban and other insurgents. Ultimately, the enemy is terrorism, right? bin Laden was the point for going there, as I recall. Now he is not there, and so to what end is NATO there? 'To stop the terrorist breeding ground' seems the only credible answer to that question. But evidence suggests that international terror isn't planned in Afghanistan at all any more. Europe, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are where that's at. But sure, if NATO pulled out of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda might move back in. So the only answer is to stay forever? Because it's not like there are any prospects of Al Qaeda and bin Laden being smoked out, despite documented cowboy tactics. On the other hand, now, again since the Taleban is not ruling the farmers, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of heroin, which kills about ~100,000 people every year. "Covert terrorism"?

If Iraq is a difficult enough war, there are reasons why Afghanistan is much worse.
"The sheer terrain of Afghanistan is much more challenging: the mountains, the altitudes, severity of weather, the distances. That wears on an army," says Maj. Joseph Matthews, a battalion operations officer in the 10th Mountain Division. "You can flood Baghdad with soldiers but if you want to flood the mountains you are going to need huge numbers and logistics."


In Afghanistan, troops routinely cross passes 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) and higher, descending into valleys where they say villagers "hibernate like bears" for up to five winter months, cut off from the outside world by the snows.

This almost medieval isolation makes it far more difficult for the Afghan government and coalition forces to spread the aid and information needed to counter the Taliban push while the villagers — mostly illiterate and with little access to radios, never mind television — rely on religious leaders at Friday mosque prayers, or the insurgents, to shape their world view.
In late January next year, British PM Brown will host a conference on an Afghanistan exit strategy. The plan is to require (intensely corrupt) Afghan President Karzai to provide 50,000 troops for training in the next year, as well as improving the police force, and then pull out NATO troops. 50k troops?! I want to say that I suspect that will prove difficult, but I don't really know. Does anyone think this is going to be possible?

A San Francisco Chronicle editorial suggests building more schools is the real way to win the war, and I largely concur, even though I would worry that NATO would need to keep troops in Afghanistan for a very long time for that strategy to be effective. It could be that it would have a more immediate effect on people than the wait for children to be educated, but I wonder if.
"In Afghanistan, success stories are difficult to find," said Lex Kassenberg, CARE's top official in the country. The delicate, painstaking work of bringing a community school to life offers clear rewards such as education, an end to violence and a way to contain the Taliban, he believes. The cost so far: $25 million over five years for CARE. Compare that to the $200 billion-plus spent by the United States over eight years in a stumbling, inconclusive conflict.
But what's to stop the Taleban from closing schools if the troops leave? The answer would be the local communities themselves... and hopefully that would work.


  1. So one possible answer on the opium/heroine issue -- and I've heard this has been done with some success in other countries, though I have no idea if that is actually true -- is to co-opt the poppy farmers into a legitimate program of producing medical morphine. It's not like the farmers are the ones getting rich off the drug trade; as much as independent 3rd world farmers are fucked over by the dark side of global trade, I am pretty sure the drug lords fuck them over even worse. Of course, if you're stuck in the "every person who contributes to the drug trade is Bad, Mmm'kay?" mentality, doing business with currently-illegitimate poppy farmers is not an option...

    Of course, the other aspect of the Afghanistan problem, in addition to it being a breeding ground for terror, is that if we pull out all at once, it's going to be a really bad day for the women of Afghanistan, especially the ones who were "uppity" enough to think girls ought to be educated and women ought to be able to hold political office. Whatever would happen in a post-NATO Afghanistan, one thing is certain: If it is united under a single stable government, that government will be forced to pander to Islamic fundamentalists and uphold many of the stricter tenets of sharia law.

    How much does that matter to us? A Saudi Arabia-like Afghanistan, which constantly shits on their own women but mostly leaves us alone (except to sell us oil) might not be such a bad thing from a purely American-centric perspective, but it leaves Afghani progressives high and dry. Are we okay with that if it saves thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of American dollars? That's a difficult question, and one for which I have no answer...

  2. That leaving Afghanistan would be damaging is clear - what we think would happen is not pretty, for sure. I just don't know if it isn't worse to stay. Nothing is working the way it is, and I hope, but doubt, that a 50% troop increase will make a positive difference. But either way, will a troop surge decrease the amount of corruption in Karzai's government? The only idea that anyone has presented as a win, is to create a 50,000 troop strong Afghan army, and with a corrupt government, do we trust that's going to work the way we want?

    Btw, I've been enjoying a little discussion with some very right-wing people on The interesting observation for me is that there are really people who earnestly believe that Bush et al. did everything with the best intentions, did not lie us into a war (by letting very faulty intelligence pass because they wanted the war in Iraq very badly), and did everything they could to protect troops and American civilians.

  3. "But what's to stop the Taleban from closing schools if the troops leave?"

    In fact, what's to stop the Taliban from blowing up the schools while the troops are still in Afghanistan? Even if the troops were physically standing guard over the schools, that would only make them a more desirable target---remove the focus of Western-tainted education, and kill the enemy, all at the same time!

    I agree that education is the answer; I just don't see a good way of getting the ball rolling while the Taliban has enough local sympathy to keep them in business in the region.

    /depressed pessimism


  4. FWIW, I think it's conceivable that Bush, at least, did everything with the best of intentions. Hard to say for sure. I do think for sure that a lot of the people who were involved in trumping up/fabricating the evidence for WMDs really did believe there were WMDs in Iraq, and found themselves quite frustrated when reality failed to conform to what they knew to be an undeniable fact... "Hmmm, this CIA report comes to a conclusion that I am certain must be wrong, so let's just do a little cherry-picking to make sure it comes back with the correct answer."

    Evil conspiracies are hard to pull off because the odds of a whistleblower rise in direct proportion to the size of the conspiracy. On the other hand, if an organization is overcome with a zealous devotion to something that happens to be wrong, what's a potential whistleblower going to say? "Well, I can tell you that so-and-so passionately and earnestly believes X, but uh... he's wrong!"

    Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if even some of the anti-AGW business interests really do believe their own propaganda... If you were presented with facts showing that your livelihood was ultimately going to result in massive ecological catastrophe, can you say for certain that you wouldn't engage in a bit of cognitive dissonance to avoid having to face that conclusion?

    I'd like to think I'd be better than that... but when I think honestly about how I'd react if presented with evidence that the work I was doing was causing massive harm, well, I'm pretty sure I would cling to even the flimsiest scrap of evidence that would enable me to keep collecting a paycheck in good conscience.. :/

  5. "Hmmm, this CIA report comes to a conclusion that I am certain must be wrong, so let's just do a little cherry-picking to make sure it comes back with the correct answer."

    This is not acceptable, AND tantamount to lying.

  6. Oh, I'm not saying it's acceptable! Please, no... heh... I'm just saying it's quite conceivable -- and for many of the cronies, I'd even say likely -- that it was well-intentioned.

    Which is far more dangerous than the alternative, I think. As I mentioned, malicious conspiracies are far more vulnerable to whistleblowers and other disruptions than wrong-headed crusades are.

    The scariest thing about Dubya is that he just might have been trying his best to do the right thing the whole eight years...

  7. I didn't actually think that you thought it was acceptable. My mind is still on that annoying thread on - they all love W over there.

    But, I actually don't think W was in charge of very much at all. I don't think he cared about the job, but that the whole show was run largely by Cheney. So when Bush "lied,", I don't think he understood much of what he was saying. I don't consider it likely that he saw and understood the intelligence.

    But, yeah, that is all scary.


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