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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Posted April 20, 2009 | 04:49 PM (EST)

Lawrence Korb and I Debate Military Escalation in Afghanistan (Video)


As we mark Obama's first 100 Days, there is much to celebrate--from repeal of the global gag rule to the passage of the stimulus and the Administration's pledge to close Guantanamo. The budget, a smart blueprint to build a new economy, will demand that progressives mobilize to take on well-funded lobbies intent on obstructing real reform.

Yet, as I think about the most troubling aspects of these first 100 days, there are two areas which I fear could endanger the Obama Presidency: the bank bailouts and military escalation in Afghanistan.

Americans deserve a real national debate about the Administration's plans in Afghanistan--its ends and means and exits--before undertaking such a major military commitment. That's why Brave New Foundation's work is so essential: with its new documentary Rethink Afghanistan and online debates such as the one CAP's Lawrence Korb and I had last week, BNF is fostering the kind of discussion, debate and dissent that Obama has said he welcomes. BNF's work--along with a network of bloggers, progressive leaders, magazines like The Nation, peace and justice groups--is launching much-needed Congressional hearings on vital areas such as the role and goals of the US military in Afghanistan, oversight of contractors, transparent budgeting and clear metrics to measure progress toward a defined exit strategy.

What's key at this pivotal moment is increasing the pressure for constructive, smart, effective non-military solutions to stabilize Afghanistan--and strengthen Pakistan's fragile democratic government. As I argued in the debate with Korb, I believe the more responsible and effective strategy moving forward is to take US-led military escalation off the table, begin to withdraw US troops and support a regional diplomatic solution, including common-sense counterterrorist and national security measures (extensive intelligence cooperation, expert police work, effective border control) and targeted development and reconstruction assistance.

The three questions Korb and I debated were tough and vital:

1) Will more US troops in Afghanistan strengthen or weaken terrorist networks?

2) Will more US troops in Afghanistan help to stabilize Pakistan or contribute to its further destabilization?

3) The third question was selected from over 460 questions that were submitted by the Rethink Afghanistan audience: What are the parallels and differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan?


1) Will more US troops in Afghanistan strengthen or weaken terrorist networks?

I argued that military escalation is likely to engender more resistance. As the Carnegie Endowment's Gilles Dorronsoro argues, "The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the Taliban's resurgence." He goes on to add that the convergence of nationalism and Jihad has aided the Taliban in extending its influence. A heavier US footprint in Afghanistan's tribal regions, for example, will help recruit fighters for the Taliban and inflame ethnic Pashtun nationalism.

The extensive research done by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape supports those who argue that more troops tend to create more terrorists. Pape's study concludes that military occupation is the principal cause of terrorism. Certainly, it's no coincidence that the governments most vulnerable to Islamic jihadism and successful terrorist recruitment are those that have had a close association with the US military or on whose soil the US military has left the heaviest military footprint.

Make no mistake: The Taliban are an ugly phenomenon. They are despised in Afghanistan--with more than 90% of Afghans in a BBC poll saying they oppose the Taliban. Yet, less than half in that same poll see the US-led occupation as a positive alternative. More broadly, I can't recall when a military occupation force won the hearts and minds of any occupied people--especially one with a history of fierce independence and nationalist resistance to outside powers. There's a good reason why Afghanistan is called "the burial ground of empires."

2) Will more US troops in Afghanistan help to stabilize Pakistan or contribute to its further destabilization?

In the case of Afghanistan, however, the greatest threat posed by our military occupation may not be the creation of more terrorists but the destabilization of Pakistan. The effect of military operations in Afghanistan has been to push Islamists across the border into tribal areas and Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province. It makes no sense to commit more troops and money to war and occupation in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda can operate relatively freely in parts of Pakistan.

Furthermore, expanding the US occupation is likely to only deepen existing divisions in Pakistan and further weaken its fragile democratic government. (US officials told the New York Times last month that Pakistan's military intelligence agency continued to offer funds, supplies and guidance to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan in order to counter Indian influence in that country.) Extending US military operations into Pakistan is especially destabilizing. All that is accomplishing is driving Taliban militants and Al-Qaeda deeper into the country, where they can infiltrate a heavily populated area, and prey on people are poverty-stricken and neglected by their government. The CIA's use of pilotless drones to kill alleged Al-Qaeda commanders has resulted in heavy collateral civilian casualties and the flight of tens of thousands of terrified people from the tribal areas, triggering popular outrage, revenge attacks, and acting as a recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and militant Islamist elements.

Even if US escalation in Afghanistan could achieve the limited goal of denying Al-Qaeda a presence in Afghanistan--and counterinsurgency experts like Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation argue that you'd need at least triple the number of troops now slated to arrive in the country--it could lead to the destabilization of a nuclear-armed country in a extraordinarily volatile region. By any measure, wouldn't the disintegration of nuclear Pakistan pose a much greater threat to our national security than would the continued presence of Al-Qaeda in remote border areas?

Furthermore, the US occupation is already exacerbating tensions in South Asia where the Kashmir conflict and the violence in Mumbai have nuclear-armed Pakistan and India at each other's throats. We may associate Afghanistan with the terrorism of 9-11-2001 but, actually, it now poses a regional problem, not a US security threat. It is inextricably tied to the geopolitics of Central and South Asia: as a result, Afghanistan's problems must be solved by the region's powers, albeit with our diplomatic and financial assistance to development and reconstruction. Progress on stabilizing Afghanistan and strengthening Pakistan depends largely on Pakistani-Indian relations. Of course, this does not mean the US has no role in promoting security. But smart, constructive regional diplomacy and common-sense counterterrorism measures should be the priorities of an Obama Administration--not sending more young men and women to die in the mountains of Afghanistan. And, yes, involvement is also needed by countries involved in what has become known as the Contact Group, which the Obama Administration is wisely engaging--Iran, Russia and China. If we continue to escalate militarily, we will not give regional diplomacy and economic aid a real chance.

3) What are the parallels and differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan?

History by analogy is often imperfect; yet it can also be useful. A few thoughts on the similarities:

As in Vietnam, we may be facing a situation in which the US military wins every battle and still doesn't win the war--at least not within a timeframe and at a cost that is acceptable to the American people, especially after Iraq.

Once again, we are escalating our military presence in a fiercely independent country. Doesn't history tell us that increasing troop levels to fight an insurgency is not a winning formula? The Soviet Union learned this after ten years in Afghanistan; the French learned it in Algeria and the US had its lessons in Vietnam.

Government corruption is endemic and we're being tarnished by it.

As in Vietnam, efforts to seal the frontiers and borders have failed.

The bombing campaign--with civilian casualties--is turning the country's people against US/NATO forces--and fueling anti-Americanism. We saw this in North Vietnam.

There is a danger that the costs of Afghanistan could drain the US of the resources it needs to rebuild at home. As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times last month, "The US is on its knees economically. As President Obama fights for his myriad domestic programs and his dream of an economic recovery, he might benefit from a look over his shoulder at the link between Vietnam and the still-smoldering ruins of Johnson's Presidency."

We are back to counterinsurgency and low--intensity conflicts: As The Nation's Defense Correspondent Michael Klare argues in the latest issue of The Nation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates' new budget represents "the most dramatic shift in US military thinking since the end of the Vietnam War....The message is clear: from now on, counterinsurgency and low-intensity conflict will be the military's principal combat mission."

Differences? There are many; here are a few:

  • So far, of course, we do not have half a million troops committed to the war--as was the case in Vietnam. Obama has pledged 60,000 to Afghanistan. Yet, as we know from history, escalation is a slippery ride and though there have been only (approximately) 650 US military deaths in Afghanistan, it is important to remember that that figure is higher than the US military's death toll in Vietnam after nine years of US involvement in that country.

  • The Taliban is not as unified as the Vietcong. But they do have a steady stream of money from a massive heroin trade.

  • Richard Holbrooke was a junior official in the Johnson Administration; today, he is central to devising what is called Af/Pak policy. He should draw lessons from the Vietnam war; yet, in a recent New York Times article, Holbrooke seemed to discount any parallels.

  • Moving forward, let's work to lay out non-military solutions that make sense. Let's be as clear and effective as we can in getting them out to Americans who, after Iraq, and amid a terrible economic crisis, do not seem eager to commit to another war--even one too many Democrats label "the right war." And as BNF's Robert Greenwald suggested, after a recent visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, let's explore alternatives to the militarization of that country's problems. In doing so, we will ensure the possibility that President Obama's ambitious agenda--at home and abroad--has a chance of taking root to create a more peaceful, just and secure world.