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'We Can't Remake Afghanistan' | The Nation

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'We Can't Remake Afghanistan'

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In his widely discussed recent book, The Limits of Power (Metropolitan Books, 2008), Boston University professor of history and international relations Andrew J. Bacevich proposed reinventing US containment policy toward the Soviet Union as the cornerstone for dealing with Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. Containment would mean intensified surveillance of terrorist activity, international police efforts to prevent attacks and expose terrorist networks, denying Islamic militants sanctuaries and financial resources. It would involve cultural, educational and diplomatic engagement with the Islamic world. It would not involve a Bush-style open-ended global war or budget-busting US support of failing states.

About the Author

Russ Hoyle
Russ Hoyle is the author of Going to War (2008, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press), writes on foreign affairs for...

"Ours is the far stronger hand," Bacevich has written. "The jihadist project is entirely negative. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die." In the following e-mail exchange, Bacevich criticizes the new Obama policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, in part, for its failure to consider the alternatives:

Obama's new Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, with its emphasis on military counterinsurgency operations and nation-building, suggests that the president is none the wiser about the containment policy outlined in your book. Do you see any evidence to the contrary?

Candidly, I know of no evidence suggesting that the president is familiar with anything I have written. No one from the administration has been in touch with me about any subject whatsoever. The Obama approach differs from the Bush approach in that Obama defines US objectives somewhat more modestly than Bush did--he'll settle for stability, whereas Bush insisted that we sought to democratize. And Obama understands that relying entirely on hard power won't work--hence, his greater emphasis on economic development. But in Afghanistan, at least, Obama still seems to think that the United States can and must remake the place.

Do you support a strong US-led, regionally based diplomatic initiative and nonmilitary operations designed to strengthen Afghan governance and economic development?

I'm not optimistic about our ability to "strengthen Afghan governance and economic development." Given the current economic crisis, I don't believe we have the money for such an enterprise. When it comes to Afghanistan, I'm sympathetic to economic support and security assistance only in the sense that the Bush approach was even worse. Let me speak plainly: we can't remake Afghanistan and don't need to.

You have been an outspoken critic of the Bush war on terrorism as a "fashionable" idea that has created a "constellation of celebrities" around General Petraeus. I take it you have little confidence in the Pentagon's investment in counterinsurgency doctrine?

The "surge" produced improved security but has not delivered the promised political reconciliation. To the extent that the surge produced positive results, the credit is due in large measure to the Sunnis, who decided for their own reasons to suspend insurgent activity. If you think we need to stay in Afghanistan for the next several years, then separating the bad Taliban from the not-so-bad Taliban is certainly legitimate and also probably imperative. I don't happen to subscribe to the premise, however.

Do you agree with Les Gelb's proposal for a US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan after three years that emphasizes containing Al Qaeda and Taliban militants with counterinsurgency tactics, economic aid and training Afghan security forces?

I think Gelb has it about right on Afghanistan. I part company with him on Pakistan. If we can't "fix" Afghanistan, then it's absurd to think that we can "fix" Pakistan. He's right. The hawks in Washington tend to overstate the promised benefits of military victory and to overstate the consequences of policy failure.

Pakistan seems a black box as far as US anti-terrorist operations are concerned. Should such raids, either by Predator missiles or commandoes, simply be stopped cold?

If the Predator strikes are killing civilians, they are probably doing more harm than good. If they are killing Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives exclusively, they might be worth it. Press reports say that we have been deeply involved in trying to ensure that Pakistani nuclear weapons are secure and under firm civilian control. That's about as much as we can hope to do.

Pakistan would seem the ground zero of any containment policy, since its porous borders areas offer sanctuary for Al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban militants operating in Afghanistan. How do you contain that?

The most important way to implement a containment policy is to deny jihadists the wherewithal needed to promote their activities. We need to stop shipping billions of dollars to the Arabs. That means implementing a serious energy policy.

You describe containment as an alternative to open-ended global war that can't succeed, since it will exhaust US resources and set off mass uprisings in the Islamic world. Is that the fate that awaits President Obama's recast war in Afghanistan?

I fear that may be the case. Obviously Obama has ratcheted down US objectives in Afghanistan--there's no more talk of converting it into a liberal democracy. Still, the project he has in mind is an enormous one. It will last many years and cost many tens of billions of dollars, not to mention a considerable number of lives. That project is simply unnecessary. There are less expensive and more effective ways to secure our limited interests in Afghanistan.

Does Obama's policy represent the new face of American exceptionalism?

Not a new face; simply the latest version. Certainly it suggests that Obama is no more likely than his predecessor to understand that a belief that we are special or different actually endangers our well-being.

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