Commentary Magazine


Reclaiming the Moral Case for Afghanistan

Following the killing of American soldiers and the recent protests sparked by the accidental burning of Korans by coalition forces, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich went so far as to suggest that the United States should abandon Afghanistan unless the Afghans apologize, adding that we should tell them, “figure out how to live your own miserable life.” This is the increasingly frequent refrain of war-weary conservatives who question President Barack Obama’s leadership in the conflict, are tired of the war’s financial and human toll, and doubt that it is possible, in Gingrich’s words, to “fix Afghanistan.”

They are worn out and disheartened, in part because Obama and his administration long ago ceased making the moral case for victory in Afghanistan. It is an American tradition for our leaders to support or oppose America’s wars in moral terms. The moral case endows the fight with a meaning beyond a narrow conception of the national interest or the understandable fear of what might happen to the country’s standing in the world should we lose the war. But the moral case is one President Obama has barely made, even as he was lengthening and deepening the national commitment to the fight. Now, as the administration attempts to wind down the war in Afghanistan after more than a decade of U.S. involvement, it has left the nation without a clear sense of why America is there—and has given the loyal opposition no good reason to argue a case that seems to discomfit the commander-in-chief himself. 

That is not only a shame; it is a world-historical tragedy in the making. 

America’s commitment to this war was never solely or even primarily about how to “fix Afghanistan.” It was a response to the horrific September 11, 2001, attacks, plotted from the safety of the country that the Taliban had controlled since 1996. That said, even before 9/11, prominent Americans across the political spectrum understood the connection between America’s moral and strategic interests in Afghanistan—a country United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi described in 1998 as “a failed state which looks like an infected wound. You don’t even know where to start cleaning it.” 

As international forces toppled the Taliban in the fall of 2001, the coalition’s leaders emphasized that, beyond defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban, this was an effort to create a new future for the Afghan people. They promised not to abandon Afghanistan once again, as the United States had done after supporting the mujahideen in their fight to expel the Soviets more than a decade prior.

Despite the soaring rhetoric at the war’s start, by the time President Obama took office in 2009, many in his party and the country had lost sense of the rationale for staying in Afghanistan and were looking for an exit strategy. Yet, faced with the inescapable logic that such an exit strategy would lead to a disastrous defeat and bolstered by the success of the counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, the president bucked his base to send additional forces, increasing the number of U.S. troops on the ground by more than 60,000 by 2010. In doing so, he implemented—although with far fewer boots on the ground than were really needed—a strategy that combined America’s moral and strategic interests. Where forces could protect the population from the Taliban, saving lives and pushing the bad guys back, they could inoculate the people against future radicalization and strangle the life out of the insurgency. 

With his reelection looming in November 2012, however, Obama has succumbed to those in his administration who have counseled him to adopt more limited goals. He appears intent on extricating the country from its longest war, in part through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

The fact that a murderous, backward movement straight out of the Middle Ages is being discussed as a legitimate negotiating partner says much about current U.S. views of the war. The Taliban were once understood by virtually all Americans as the quintessence of murderous barbarism. Now they are being portrayed by senior administration officials as reasonable interlocutors. 

This pessimism about Afghanistan’s prospects on the right and the Pollyannaish fantasy of a reformed Taliban on the left have taken root in large measure because our leaders stopped making the moral case for the war in Afghanistan. What we are left with is an endless, pointless struggle in the dirt. 

With support for the war dangerously close to bottoming out altogether, it’s worth reviewing how we got to this point.

The year was 1998 and Hollywood was up in arms over a new social cause: the plight of Afghan women under the repressive rule of the Taliban. Mavis Leno, wife of Jay Leno and chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, told members of Congress, “The U.S. bears some responsibility for the conditions of women in Afghanistan. For years our country provided weapons to the mujahideen groups to fight the Soviets.” Leno and the Feminist Majority pushed an extensive U.S. campaign to delegitimize the Taliban until the rights of female Afghans were recognized. 

The Taliban enforced a strict morality code for both men and women, but women and girls bore the brunt of the most brutal repression. Women were prohibited from working outside the home except in certain fields and, in many cases, from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. As the group Physicians for Human Rights noted the same year that Leno gave her briefing, “No other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest.” In addition to enforcement of laws requiring women to wear a burka completely covering their bodies, schools for girls were closed and basic health care was often denied. 

It is not surprising that such a moral wasteland came to serve as the staging ground for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as they planned the attacks of 9/11. Bin Laden’s ideology and that of his Taliban hosts sprang from the same vile swamp. 

It thus made sense that Western leaders, in preparing a coordinated response to the attacks, began to talk about the looming battle in terms of morality. Their forebears had done much the same in framing conflicts, from the two world wars to the interventions in the Balkans. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking of the victims’ families he had recently met in New York, told the Labour Party conference three weeks after the terrorist attacks:

I believe their memorial can and should be greater than simply the punishment of the guilty….To the Afghan people we make this commitment. The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before.

This message was also broadcast on the other side of the Atlantic, where the Bush administration highlighted the plight of the Afghan people. In December 2001, upon signing the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act introduced by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of all female senators, President Bush said: 

In Afghanistan, America not only fights for our security, but we fight for values we hold dear.  We strongly reject the Taliban way.  We strongly reject their brutality toward women and children. They not only violate basic human rights, they are barbaric in their indefensible meting of justice. It is wrong. Their attitude is wrong for any culture. Their attitude is wrong for any religion. 

This was not a partisan issue at the time. Then Senator Hillary Clinton wrote an article for Time magazine in November 2001 rejecting the notion that the conflict was divorced from our values. “We cannot simply drop our bombs and depart with our best wishes, lest we find ourselves returning some years down the road to root out another terrorist,” Clinton argued. “It is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do.” 

In August 2010, after years of both military gains and setbacks, Time ran a cover story about an 18-year-old Afghan woman named Aisha. Her nose and ears had been cut off by a Taliban commander for having fled abusive in-laws. Provocatively titled “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” the article and attendant images provoked a discussion about whether the United States was about to abandon the women and girls of Afghanistan to renewed oppression under the Taliban.  

The story received significant attention, and members of the media pushed a number of the war’s opponents to square their opposition with the plight of Afghan women so vividly exemplified by the photo of Aisha. Then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi did her best to skirt the issue: “It’s in our strategic national interests to be there for our own national security to stop terrorism and increase global security,” she told ABC News, and she added that gains in women’s education and health “can’t happen without security.” One of the war’s harshest critics, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, told MSNBC: “It’s just horrible how that young woman was treated. At the same time, we need to create a world where we try to make it safe for everyone, but America can’t do it alone. We cannot be the policemen of the world.” The moral case for helping Afghans had become too discomfiting for Democrats on the left. To raise the issue was to acknowledge its force, and for politicians eager to bring the war to a close, that meant ignoring it. 

Given the Obama administration’s concerns about its base’s objections to the war, it was only a matter of time until the case against the Taliban was scrapped as well. Sixteen months after the Aisha story was published, Vice President Joe Biden told Leslie Gelb, of Newsweek, that the “Taliban per se is not our enemy.” Weeks later, news leaked that the Obama administration had been pursuing secret talks with representatives of the Taliban with the goal of a negotiated settlement to the Afghanistan war. 

An ignoble, Taliban-negotiated exit from Afghanistan was not preordained. During his campaign for the White House in 2008, Obama famously called Afghanistan the “good” war in comparison with Iraq. He claimed, with some merit, that the Bush administration had not properly resourced the effort but that, as president, he would.

Despite the hawkish campaign rhetoric, after an Afghanistan strategy review completed in mid-2009, the Obama administration narrowed U.S. goals to make it clear the Taliban was not the primary focus of American military efforts. Obama announced that the aim was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” 

While the president acceded, in part, to his commanders’ requests for additional forces, he coupled his surge announcement with a promise to begin drawing down that same surge by June 2011. That announcement, which came about before a single additional member of the military had been deployed as part of the surge, set the effort back considerably, undermining the confidence of our Afghan and regional allies, and emboldening the enemy. 

Still, the Army soldiers and Marines who were deployed in the surge to Afghanistan allowed the coalition to make significant gains. In previously neglected regions in the south, troops implemented a counterinsurgency strategy that cleared the Taliban and provided the locals with an alternative to their repressive rule. These successes allowed local populations, especially women and children, to enjoy the benefits that many of their fellow Afghans in other areas of the country had already begun to experience in the years since 2001.

It is understandable that many Americans look at Afghanistan after a decade of war and fail to see past the violence and lawlessness that still rages. But there is another story to this war. Over the last decade, Afghanistan has experienced improvements in almost every area of life. By 2010, according to the U.S. State Department, 35 percent of the 6.2 million students enrolled in Afghan schools were girls, up from zero percent among the fewer than 900,000 students enrolled during Taliban rule. U.S.-funded efforts have assisted the building of schools, the incorporation of women into Afghanistan’s police forces, and the training of female teachers, politicians, lawyers, and judges. There are now 69 female members of the Afghan parliament. Afghanistan has also experienced a sharp decrease in infant and child mortality rates and significant increases in life expectancy for both men and women. 

These achievements undermine the criticism that our efforts in Afghanistan must fail because we are attempting to change deeply held societal norms and the inherent nature of Islam as practiced in Afghanistan’s tribal society. 

Given the Taliban’s track record, and ours, it is no surprise that Afghan women have responded to America’s obsession with Taliban negotiations by demanding a seat at the table to ensure that women’s rights remain protected. As a former Afghan female presidential candidate recently told the Christian Science Monitor: “If [the Taliban] are bad, why are you bringing them back? Once the Taliban gets power and they are assured they will stay in power, then they will introduce their own values and there won’t be any space for women.”

Recent Taliban rhetoric reinforces this skepticism. In a statement issued on January 12, the group said that its willingness to talk “does not mean a surrender from jihad, and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration.” As Karl Inderfurth, who met with Taliban officials some 20 times during the Clinton administration, wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine, “On a scale of one to ten on good-faith negotiations, the Taliban proved to be a zero.” 

An Afghanistan that does not protect the rights of women, children, and minorities would be a devastating failure for the United States. As Hillary Clinton noted back in 2001, “A post-Taliban Afghanistan where women’s rights are respected is much less likely to harbor terrorists in the future. Why? Because a society that values all its members, including women, is also likely to put a higher premium on life, opportunity, and freedom—values that run directly counter to the evil designs of the Osama bin Ladens of the world.” 

Given the Obama administration’s race to the exits, largely made politically thinkable by the killing of Osama bin Laden, what should those who are skeptical of the administration’s intentions do to correct this slow-motion train wreck of an Afghanistan policy? 

It is unlikely that a future president will have the fortitude of President Bush in 2007 when he sent the surge forces into Iraq, defying public and expert opinion claiming the war was lost. It is thus imperative that, at a minimum, our commanders be allowed to maintain post-surge force levels through 2013. Similarly, recent decisions to downsize the Afghan security forces need to be reconsidered; and the administration needs to devote a renewed sense of urgency to negotiations with the Afghan government, not the Taliban, over a strategic partnership agreement that makes clear America’s long-term interests in the fate of Afghanistan and its people.

American policymakers may very well decide to abandon the Afghan people, but few seem willing to admit how dishonorable that would be. On a trip to Afghanistan last fall, I saw young girls in Helmand province shouting “Ma-rine, Ma-rine” as they flocked to a woman in our group. They thought she was part of the highly successful (and popular) Marines’ female engagement teams that provide basic medical services to locals. On a Blackhawk helicopter on our way to Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s recently cleared hometown in Kandahar province, an Army general told us that “when you see the kids, you will realize we can succeed.” 

In other words, the moral case for Afghanistan is not only a matter of our being virtuous for the sake of virtue. Because we increasingly have the heretofore neglected population on our side, we can still win. As a result of the heroic efforts of coalition forces, al-Qaeda has largely been forced to relocate to the tribal areas of Pakistan or outposts in Yemen and Somalia. Still, the Afghan government’s stability is threatened as Taliban forces struggle to retake many districts. They can be stopped. But only if our leaders give our troops free reign to do so and avoid the temptation to give up the fight.

Rehabilitating the Taliban or writing off a supposedly backwards country may be attractive options for politicians eager to pacify the war-weary American public. But doing so would undermine everything we have fought so hard for over the last 10 years. And there is no reason to believe either solution will lead to anything but an end far more disastrous, and morally haunting, than we can presently imagine. On February 23, the New York Times ran an article with a headline that, in 2002, could have appeared only in a satirical paper such as the Onion: “Beheadings Raise Doubts That Taliban Have Changed.” The governing force in Afghanistan in the 1990s performed such beheadings, and bodily mutilations, and deadly stonings, in stadiums and compelled thousands to attend and watch. They are no different today. The moral and strategic imperatives in Afghanistan are one and the same: Defeat the Taliban. Any other course is not only harmful to our national interest but also dishonorable—and will do long-term damage to our national character.

About the Author

Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.




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