President Obama went to Afghanistan and made a speech celebrating an agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. We haven't seen the agreement, so we don't really know what they're celebrating, but according to press reports, the agreement is symbolic rather than substantive.
According to icasualties.org, which tallies statistics from the Department of Defense, 381 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan since Osama bin Laden was killed a year ago on May 2, 2011.
No U.S. official has explained to us yet what we won in Afghanistan since May 2, 2011, that justified the additional sacrifice that we have made in Afghanistan since Osama bin Laden's death. No U.S. official has presented a case that we are safer than we were a year ago as a result of our additional sacrifice in Afghanistan, still less that our increased safety was sufficient to justify the additional sacrifice of the last year.
In his speech in Afghanistan, President Obama said: "We devastated al Qaeda's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders."
It sounds like an impressive statistic, until you try to understand what it really means.
No U.S. official has explained how much the threat al Qaeda poses to the United States diminishes each time we kill someone in the top 30. For example, if we kill #30, presumably he is replaced by #31. Was #30 so much more effective, or are they likely to be about the same? If they're about the same, then it's hard to be very impressed by the killing of #30. If some foreign adversary managed to kill the 30th most important leader in the United States -- assuming that they could figure out a way to agree on who the 30th most important leader in the U.S. was -- how impressed would we be? By how much would our operations be disrupted? Former President Bush said getting bin Laden wasn't that important. If the importance of getting bin Laden is a matter of dispute, how confident can we be in the importance of al Qaeda #30?
How do our officials even decide who the top 30 people in al Qaeda are? If the president appointed a commission to determine who the top 30 people in the U.S. are, could they come to agreement? Who do you suppose is the 30th most important leader in the U.S.? An Assistant Secretary of Defense? The chair of a Congressional committee? The head of some corporation? If we could come to agreement on who USA #30 is, what percentage of Americans would even be able to identify that person by name? If that person were hit by a bus, wouldn't we easily replace that person and move on? Don't we replace such people all the time, in the ordinary course of events, as they die of natural causes, retire, are felled by scandal, move on to other things?
How many of their top 30 leaders do we have to kill to declare victory and go home? Do we have to kill all 30, or would 29 be enough? Would killing the original top 30 be sufficient, or do we have to "mow the grass" as new leaders are promoted? If some kid in Tajikistan puts on a t-shirt that says, "Proud to be Al Qaeda," do we have to snuff him too, or could we just ignore him, if he's just doing it to get attention?
More than 1,800 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since September 2001. So, if we've killed about 20 top al Qaeda leaders, then on average each top al Qaeda leader cost us about 90 American lives. Was it really worth 90 American lives to kill al Qaeda #30, in terms of how much safer we are with al Qaeda #30 gone? If al Qaeda sacrificed 90 people to get the 30th most important person in the United States, how impressed would we be?
How many tens of thousands of troops did we need in Afghanistan to kill al Qaeda #30?
How many of al Qaeda's top 30 did we kill after May 2, 2011? Was that worth the lives of 381 soldiers?
Of course, the key reason that these questions are relevant going forward is that we are not withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan yet, and it's not obvious when we will. So, maybe on May 2, 2013 we will find that another 381 U.S. soldiers had died since May 2, 2012. What will we be able to say that we accomplished with those 381 deaths?
In his speech, President Obama said, "As we move forward, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline." I'm delighted that President Obama supports the principle of a firm timeline. But it's far from obvious that we actually have a "firm timeline," and if we do, exactly what it is. Certainly there is no timeline for when all U.S. troops will be withdrawn. President Obama did seem to imply that we can be sure that there will be no U.S. troops involved in "combat" in Afghanistan after December 31, 2014. But they may be involved in "counterterrorism," which presumably is combat, and "training," and if you ask the military what "training" is, they will say it includes embedding with Afghanistan troops who are engaged in combat. So "training" is also combat. And therefore it is far from obvious that we actually have a "firm timeline" for anything.
If it's a good idea to end "combat" by December 31, 2014, how do we know it's not a good idea to end "combat" by December 31, 2013, or by December 31, 2012? Shouldn't someone have to explain this? If the government wants to regulate a chemical, it has to do a cost-benefit analysis of the regulation. Shouldn't the government have to do a cost-benefit analysis of keeping tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for another two years, given the huge sacrifice involved? Shouldn't that be a public document that outside experts can examine?
In his speech, President Obama said, "Others will ask why we don't leave immediately." Isn't that a "strawman" argument? Is a single Member of Congress actually proposing that we "leave immediately"? Could 90,000 people "immediately" leave a rock concert or a football game in a safe way, even if they were sober and unarmed? Wouldn't we want them to file out in an orderly and deliberate way? Except for rhetorical flourish, is anyone really arguing that 90,000 U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan "immediately"? If we pulled all U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year, wouldn't most war critics be satisfied by that? Therefore isn't the real question that the administration has to answer not "why can't we leave immediately?" but "why can't we leave within a year?" Didn't we withdraw tens of thousands of troops from Iraq in a matter of months?
Regardless of when we withdraw troops, couldn't we end offensive combat immediately while we try to pursue peace talks? The official policy of the international community towards the Syrian civil war is to support a ceasefire followed by political talks. Why isn't this the official policy of the international community towards the civil war in Afghanistan? If we ended offensive combat operations, wouldn't U.S. casualties in Afghanistan fall considerably? Isn't that what happened in Iraq?
In his speech, President Obama said:
"we are pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my Administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws. "
Isn't this essentially the same policy that Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was proposing in October 2006 when he said that the Afghan Taliban couldn't be defeated militarily and that the U.S. should bring "people who call themselves Taliban" into the Afghan government? Why have we waited almost six years to adopt this policy? Are we really going to get a much better deal now than we could have had six years ago? If so, will the difference be sufficient to justify the additional sacrifice of the last six years?
If we stopped the killing now, how sure are we that the political deal that would result would be much worse for us than the deal that will result if we keep killing? Shouldn't someone have to answer that? What if we tried having an offensive cease-fire for 30 days, just as an experiment, to see if it facilitated peace talks? What exactly would be the downside of giving that experiment a try?