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Doubling Down in Afghanistan | The Nation

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Doubling Down in Afghanistan

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Knowing When to Fold 'em

About the Author

William J. Astore
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate...

Also by the Author

An Air Force veteran explains how we all got drafted into the American national security state.

War, as any sane person knows, is a life-or-death gamble, usually at long odds—and let's face it, we've been gambling at the longest odds for years now. It was never a smart move to invade either Afghanistan or Iraq, and then try to plant pseudo-democracies in soil that was unlikely to sustain them. In Afghanistan, it wasn't smart to squeeze local card sharks and tough guys even as they squeezed us, whether by stealing outright or forcing us to pay protection money in a rigged game. It wasn't smart to woo hearts and minds while busting heads and bodies ("aggressive interrogation") and plugging mid-level thugs ("targeted assassinations") with missiles and slugs, all the while knocking off far too many civilian noncombatants as we went.

Under the pressure of so many losing hands, our tactics in Afghanistan have become increasingly erratic, swinging from idealistic plans for nation-building to pragmatic "clear-and-hold" counterinsurgency, from upbraiding Afghan leaders to uplifting them. Like a flustered gambler, we've lost all sense of the cards staring coldly back at us.

Now, let's return to our British partner, sweating it out at the table. Low on chips and holding bad cards, he'd like nothing more than to swallow his pride and get out of Dodge. He looks for a nod from us, some recognition that walking away with our shirts still on our backs is better than losing it all.

Yet his Washington partner stubbornly plays on, compelled to double down yet again in spite of the odds.

Tell me: Is the fight truly worth it? Is Afghanistan really the place for us to go "all-in," whatever the cost to our military, our economy, even our way of life?

Only a compulsive gambler would answer yes.

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