Democracy Arsenal

« Ted Kennedy RIP | Main | Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Credibility Version »

August 27, 2009

Analyzing the Case for Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at, Josh Foust has taken on the admirable and difficult job of making the case for staying the course in Afghanistan. He argues there are two strategic goals for the US mission:

  1. A basic minimal stability in Afghanistan, such that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda is likely to develop a staging ground for international attacks, whether against neighboring countries or the United States and Europe;
  2. The permanent delegitimization of Pakistan’s insurgents, such that they can no longer push Pakistan and India toward nuclear conflict;

Number one is a compelling rationale for a US mission in Afghanistan - whether completing that mission needs to be done via robust counter-insurgency is something else altogether. In my view, it doesn't and I will try to tackle that point in a future post.

But to the second point, I'm not sure I completely understand Josh's argument. He explains it more here:

Lest anyone think it is appropriate to write off the India-Pakistan conflict as somebody else’s problem, it is never somebody else’s problem when nuclear weapons are involved . . India and Pakistan have come a hair’s breadth from nuclear conflict twice over Kashmir. And like it or not, it is a compelling and vital American interest to prevent nuclear conflict in South Asia—which makes “fixing” Afghanistan in some way also a vital American interest.

Now I certainly share the view that preventing nuclear conflict in South Asia is a vital American interest, less clear to me is why we need to fix Afghanistan to achieve that goal. Is the fear that if we leave, Afghanistan will become a proxy war for India and Pakistan that could turn into a full-fledged nuclear conflict? I suppose I have to ask where is the evidence for that. I know India is playing a more open role in Afghanistan, but does really rise to the level of proxy war?  I do wonder how much of the "Indian influence" is being hyped by the Pakistani government. I'm just not seeing the direct and vital connection that Josh is making.

Josh goes on:

When it comes to Pakistan, the big danger is not in a Taliban takeover, or even in the Taliban seizure of nuclear weapons—I have never believed that the ISI could be that monumentally stupid (though they are incredibly stupid for letting things get this far out of hand). The big danger, as it has been since 1999, is that insurgents, bored or underutilized in Afghanistan, will spark another confrontation between India and Pakistan, and that that confrontation will spillover into nuclear conflict. That is worth blood and treasure to prevent.

Again, it's important to prevent such a conflict from emerging, but why is it worth US blood and treasure? I'm actually quite serious here - I don't want to get all Chris Preble on Josh, but I really don't see why American troops have to be put in harm's way because a blow-up in Afghanistan might turn into a full-fledged India-Pakistan war. Why would the United States willingly hold itself and its soldiers hostage to an unresolved regional conflict? And are there really no other options - for example, diplomatic - for preventing such a war than "fixing" Afghanistan?

But there is something else about this argument that troubles me. Josh alleges that the big danger is if insurgents bored from the Afghanistan fight will try to spark a confrontation between India and Pakistan. I'm not clear as to why Afghan Taliban would in the wake of a US withdrawal want to get involved with the fight for Kashmir (did that happen from 1996-2001?) but the bigger question is that didn't jihadist terror groups already try to spark that conflict last November in the Mumbai attacks that killed 173 people?  Not to minimize those horrific attacks, but even though the jihadists behind the Mumbai attacks were based in Pakistan - and probably backed by the ISI - it didn't spark a military escalation between the two countries. What would be different if we left Afghanistan?

But I will say one thing, if THIS is the rationale for staying I can understand "why even the war supporters cannot articulate them." I seriously doubt most Americans believe that we should be fighting a war in Afghanistan so that India and Pakistan don't fight one in the future.

I ask these questions not to tweak Josh, but I'm actually curious to hear his answers. So I look forward to the debate.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Analyzing the Case for Afghanistan:


Classic exposition, I have also mentioned it in my blog article. But it is a pity that almost no friend discussed it with me. I am very happy to see your article.

#1 A basic minimal stability in Afghanistan, such that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda is likely to develop a staging ground for international attacks, whether against neighboring countries or the United States and Europe;

Staging ground??? And you agree this is a "compelling rationale"? You and Foust have lost me.

What kinds of Al Qaeda or Taliban attacks are you imagining could be staged in Afghanistan, and in what would the staging consist? What kinds of staging could possibly take place in Afghanistan that could not just easily take place in any number of other countries which are closer to the likely locations of the attacks? And what level of "minimal stability" could we possibly achieve in Afghanistan that would put any serious dent in the ability of jihadists to store up dynamite, C4, triggers, wires, bullets or bomb vests in a single room in some safe house? What you and Foust are imagining is maximum security, not minimal stability, and obviously there is nothing we can do to turn the very large, wild and geographically challenging country of Afghanistan into an American maximum security facility.

Why in the world would anyone "stage" a suicide bombing, car bombing or assault rifle attack intended for a city in Iraq, Africa, Europe or North America in Afghanistan?

People seem to be easily dazzled in this debate by various pieces of poorly understood and dubiously applicable language: "safe havens", "training bases", "staging grounds". Terrorists don't need expansive training bases to do the minimal training they need to do. They don't need to go to terrorist "boot camp". They don't need to learn to drill, march and salute. They don't need to maintain a network of headquarters to manage logistically and tactically involved operations. They don't need to hide and protect tanks or battle cruisers or field artillery. They don't even need Evil Masterminds in mountain lairs. Militant jihadism is mostly a do-it-yourself job. To the extent it relies on pre-existing expertise and weapons running networks, that expertise and networking is scattered all over the world and isn't permanently "staged" anyhere.

I'm appalled that eight years after the 9/11 attacks, people still don't understand what terrorism is, what can be done to prevent it, and what can't be done. We're still getting these anachronistically conventional and inapplicable military concepts.

Staging ground??? What world are you guys living in?

"I'm not clear as to why Afghan Taliban would in the wake of a US withdrawal want to get involved with the fight for Kashmir (did that happen from 1996-2001?)"

Yes it did. The so-called "Al-Qaeda" camp that Billy The Clinton bombed in 1998 was actually a training camp for the Kashmiri terrorist group "Harkat-al-Mujahideen". The Taliban were "involved" to the same extent that they were involved with bin-Laden.

Of course, to me that suggests more of a reason for India to be involved in Afghanistan, than the US.

Hey Michael, sorry it's taken me so long to respond here.

If I may, I'd like to summarize your argument for the sake of simplicity:

1) There is not much evidence for tying the conflict in Afghanistan to the conflict in Kashmir (or the general India-Pakistan conflict);

2) Even if there is, it's not clear it's worth American effort to mitigate.

I can respond pretty strongly to #1. I'm not sure I could convince you about #2, but that's because it's rare people—anyone, smart, principled, or otherwise—does. Not a knock on you, just admitting up front it's a harder nut to crack.

So, for #1. One of your commenters already noted that when we bombed the training camps in Afghanistan in 1998 (i.e. the policy of remaining standoffish and relying on air strikes to mitigate any terrorist threat in the country), we were bombing a camp Osama bin Laden used to support Harkat-al-Mujahideen—which he operated with consent and some support from the Taliban. Harakat later hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 flying from Kathmandu to New Delhi; they ultimately landed the plane in Kandahar where the Taliban formed a defensive shield around the plane to prevent Indian forces from storming it. There is a lot of evidence the operation revealed extensive links between al Qaeda, Pakistani jihadist groups, and the Taliban (and, worryingly, the ISI). The hijacking took place after Pakistan's disastrous Kargil War, and a lot of analysts suspected if the ISI granted at least tacit approval for the operation since Pakistan decisively lose Kargil.

But there are other examples where militancy ultimately succored in Afghanistan brought India and Pakistan to the brink. Both the Mumbai attacks and the 2001 Parliament attack—both of which seriously worsened relations between India and Pakistan, with the 2001 attacks causing very serious, and legitimate, concern of open warfare—were launched by Lashkar-e Toiba, a group that got its start in Kunar province of Afghanistan in 1990. Since 1993, they have focused most of their activity on Jammu and Kashmir, while using Northeastern Afghanistan as a staging ground during the occasional sweeps by the Pakistani Army and Police. LeT even did us the courtesy of drafting a pamphlet called "Why are we waging jihad," in which they state their goals of not only creating Islamic rule all over India, but the rest of Central Asia as well.

LeT has moved its headquarters to the suburbs of Lahore, but they remain active in recruiting militants from Southeastern Afghanistan, and multiple depositions of captured militants in Afghanistan have indicated that LeT plays a significant role in funding and training Taliban fighters still active inside Afghanistan. Additionally, several rounds of combat brigades have indicated that a growing amount of militancy along the border can be traced back to LeT, though usually the evidence for that is classified so I don't know if it's legit or not.

There are other examples as well. The point is, there is a documented history of Afghan-based and supported terror groups fomenting armed conflict between India and Pakistan, even after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom. That is the biggest reason why I don't think we can decouple the India-Pakistan conflict from the war in Afghanistan.

That is also why I think it is worth U.S. blood and treasure. You wondered, "what would be different if we left Afghanistan?" It's pretty clear, at least I thought, that American diplomatic pressure, backed up by a credibly violent response in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, helped to defuse the tensions after Mumbai. Similarly, given how frequently Indian consulates, the embassy, and even construction crews are singled out for attacks, it is obvious that India would escalate things should violence against their civilians continue. Don't forget the massive Taliban bombing of the Indian Embassy last year, which had ties going right back into the Pakistani security establishment—again, if the U.S. wasn't there, I sincerely doubt India would have backed down.

Now, I can't argue whether you really think things would be so precipitous if we left; what I do know is that American efforts in Afghanistan have staved off a far larger and much deadlier conflict between the two countries several times since we invaded. It is not clear at all that they would have avoided war had the U.S. been absent.

I hope that addresses at least some of your concerns.

Thanks for this post. Its very nice on this niche


We have a Debatepedia article on this topic that is definitely worth reading:

But, generally, I think that the problem with the War in Afghanistan is that it's not clear that stabilizing Afghanistan is key to preventing attacks on US soil. I think that heavy, heavy border and airport security, as well as beefed up intelligence and monitoring are the best means of protecting against attacks. Poor airport security was the main reason the 9/11 attacks were able to succeed. Greater security and measures have been the factor preventing subsequent attempts. But, these attempts have come from many different territories, including "homegrown" terrorists in Britain. With a decentralized Al Qaeda, a targeted war in Afghanistan cannot bring full domestic security. Only robust border and airport security measures can do that.!

Thank you for your sharing! I like i very much!

Great comments! You are so nice, man! You never know how much i like'em!

Yes, that's cool. The device is amazing! Waiting for your next one!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use