Dagobert L. Brito Headshot
Michael D. Intriligator Headshot

For a Solution in Afghanistan, Look South...and In the Past

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It has been reported that President Obama is considering military options for Afghanistan that range from a complete military commitment, such as has been suggested by General McChrystal with 40,000 added troops, to a focus on training the Afghan armed forces and police, as has been suggested by Vice President Biden, to a drawdown or even a complete withdrawal of our troops. This debate has used historical analogies that range from the British experience in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century to the Soviet Union experience in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and the American experience in Vietnam. The process has been deliberate, and it reminds us of the debates between Churchill, Roosevelt and the military command that occurred in 1942 and 1943 assigning priorities to the European and Pacific theaters and the invasion of North Africa. This may be frustrating to the news cycle of the punditry, but the lives of young women and men are at stake.

The rationales given for the United States range from the pragmatic necessity to deny al Qaeda a base and to protect the stability of Pakistan to the need to create a viable nation state in Afghanistan after our invasion, and our moral responsibility to protect the Afghan people, and particularly Afghan women, from the Taliban.

In our national debate, we have forgotten that in the twentieth century the United States faced a problem similar to the one in Afghanistan and that was much more serious and involved major United States economic interests on its southern border -- the Mexican Revolution. Through a combination of wise leadership and some fortunate historical accidents, the problems stemming from this Revolution were solved with only limited American intervention. With only a few exceptions American intervention was limited and covert.

After the expulsion of the Emperor Maximilian in 1867, Porfirio Díaz evolved from national hero, to president of Mexico, to a dictator who ruled Mexico for many years. In 1911, he was overthrown. In 1913, Madero, the elected president, was murdered in a coup supported by the United States Ambassador. General Huerta, who succeeded him, was in turn deposed a year later. The Federal Army was disbanded and Mexico became the bear pit for the armies of competing revolutionary generals. Generals Villa, Zapata, Carranza, Calles, Obregon were warlords leading armies they had raised. Mexico was also a base for attacks on the United States by indigenous forces that we would now call terrorists. As one example there was the raid on the U.S. by Pancho Villa. There were also United States military interventions in Mexico. It 1916, there was a punitive expedition led by General Pershing, and in 1914 the United States occupied the port of Vera Cruz. There were attempts by Germany to use Mexico against the United States, (recall the Zimmerman Telegram). The threats to the United States and its interests then exceed any threat posed by Afghanistan today.

The Mexican Revolution is estimated to have cost one million lives. This was almost ten percent of the population and was one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century. General Calles co-opted the Mexican elite and the political organization that they created evolved into the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico until 2000. The revolutionary generals were brought under control through a combination of bribes, assignations and political cooptation. There was once a popular saying in Mexico: "No general can withstand a cannonade of fifty thousand pesos." Whether due to necessities that resulted from the war in Europe, wise leadership, or both, U.S. intervention in Mexico was limited and covert. This should be our policy in Afghanistan today.

President Wilson did not believe that the United States had a duty to intervene in 1912 to prevent one million casualties and create in Mexico a democracy that would be a model for Latin America. The Pershing Expedition in 1916 suggests that any American intervention would have been very costly. We suspect that if one were to poll Mexicans today, a substantial majority would prefer to have been allowed to develop their own institutions as opposed to having these institutions imposed by the Colossus of the North, even if it would have avoided the cost of the Revolution.

The overwhelming self-interest of the United States is its own safety. It does not have the political will to expend the resources that would be necessary to occupy and to control Afghanistan long enough to change the culture to one that would be to our liking, assuming this was possible. Like Mexico, there will be death and suffering. The Taliban are horrible, but so were the armies of the Mexican revolutionary generals.

There are two questions that must be answered. The first is political: should the Administration compel the citizens of the United States to pay for a war unless it is in the clear self interest of the United States and is a war of necessity.

The second question is one of morality. The war is not being fought completely by volunteers. We are compelling young women and men to go and die in Afghanistan against their will. Many regular soldiers are on their second, third and fourth tours. We are activating National Guard units for deployment overseas. It is true that negotiating with the Taliban will have horrible consequences, but do we have a duty to rescue Afghans from their own institutions? Do we have the moral right to compel our young women and men to risk their lives when it is not an American interest that is at stake? The question that should be posed to the generals is: Can you fight this war in the manner you propose if no one is compelled to serve in Afghanistan against their will?

If the answer is no then it is time to a return to the successful strategy that we had used when we first invaded Afghanistan right after the 9/11 attack but that has been forgotten or ignored in the eight years since then. That strategy was to send in CIA operatives with bags of money to buy off the warlords rather than troops with weapons. John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy, noted in an editorial in The Washington Post in 2006 that, "What made the Afghan campaign a landmark in the U.S. Military's history is that it was prosecuted by Special Operations forces from all the services, along with Navy and Air Force tactical power, operations by the Afghan Northern Alliance and the CIA were equally important and fully integrated. No large Army or Marine force was employed." [Emphasis added]

Dagobert L. Brito is Peterkin Professor of Political Economy at Rice University and Michael D. Intriligator is Professor of Economics, Political Science, and Public Policy at UCLA