Afghan War Escalation: Out of the Frying Pan into the Frying Pan

Afghan War Escalation: Out of the Frying Pan into the Frying Pan

Stephen H. Unger
February 3, 2009

The shocking economic turbulence we are now undergoing has, understandably, captured the attention of most Americans, including the most politically sophisticated. Reports and debates about efforts to stabilize our collapsing economy dominate the news media. These concerns have obscured the fact that we are still fighting not just one, but two wars. Most people believe that the Iraq war is petering out, and do not seem to realize that the Obama administration apparently intends to implement the plans of the Bush administration to decrease (but not eliminate) our forces in Iraq, while roughly doubling our forces in Afghanistan.


Are we really going to plunge further into the Afghan morass without discussion? Why are we there anyway? As in the case of Iraq, multiple justifications were put forward for our Afghan incursion. The red-hot emotional reason was to avenge the 9/11 atrocity. This was to be done by capturing Osama bin Laden and wiping out al-Qaeda. Since the Taliban government seemed to be hosting al-Qaeda, toppling the Taliban became a related objective. The Taliban regime was indeed overthrown, but bin Laden and most of the al-Qaeda organization escaped to Pakistan. Victory over the Taliban was short-lived as they have been rejuvenated and are now a serious threat to the US-backed Karzai government, which a large portion of the country does not support. At various times, other reasons for our military presence in Afghanistan have been offered. These include, democratizing and stabilizing that country, eliminating it as a source of opiates, and liberating Afghan women.

A case could be made that the Taliban has been severely punished for its support of terrorists, and that al-Qaeda lost its comfortable base. In seven years, not much else has been accomplished with respect to the other stated goals. Afghanistan remains a country in turmoil, women there continue to be oppressed, and democracy remains a dream. What about the opium issue?

Ironically, while ruling the country, the Taliban reduced opium production to a small fraction of its previous amount, but, as an anti-government force, it derives much of its financial resources from a large increase in the drug trade, which is also encouraged by officials of the corrupt Karzai government, and perhaps by other factions. In effect, the Taliban is largely financed by drug sales in the US. Afghanistan now accounts for about 90% of world heroin production.

Which of the original war aims justify our continued intervention? Vengeance has already been exacted. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda no longer reside in Afghanistan. If seven years of US occupation has only increased Afghan opium production, failed to pacify the country, failed to establish a stable democratic government and failed to improve the lot of most Afghan women very much, what basis is there for believing that continuing the occupation will improve matters?

Rising Cost

The war in Afghanistan is heating up. Casualties among Afghanis, NATO troops, and American troops are rising. The Afghan government is doing poorly. Outside of Kabul, and perhaps a few other cities, it is only nominally in control. The countryside belongs largely to the Taliban and to various warlords [1].

Because the Taliban is receiving help from across the Pakistani border, the war is spilling over into Pakistan, with our forces targeting al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan with missiles fired from unmanned drones [2]. A disputed number of civilian casualties have resulted from these attacks [3]. The Pakistani government is in shaky condition, torn by strife, in part over the situation across its long border with Afghanistan. Is war with Pakistan next on our agenda?

What exactly would constitute a US "victory" in Afghanistan? What are the chances of achieving this, how long would it take, and what would be the cost in lives, money and reputation? Clearly a lot of Afghans do not want US troops in their country. Afghanistan is considerably larger than Iraq, its terrain is unusually rugged, and it is more populous than Iraq. There are over a half dozen different Afghan ethnic groups, subdivided into numerous tribes that are often in conflict. The largest ethnic group (over 40%), the Pashtuns, constitute a major part of the anti-US forces. Afghanistan has always been a warrior country, with a long history of fighting off invaders, including the British when their empire was at its peak. The Soviet Union, failing to learn from the US experience in Vietnam, blundered into a nine-year Afghan War, which turned out to be an important factor in its collapse.

Nothing achievable in Iraq or Afghanistan is worth the killing and maiming of young Americans and the enormous drain on the US treasury. Even in the unlikely event that years of additional bloodshed could eliminate Afghanistan as a possible terrorist base, what would stop al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist organization, from setting up shop in some other country with a weak, or anti-US, government and rugged terrain (say Burma, or Nigeria, or Ethiopia)? Furthermore, long experience indicates that the inevitable killing of innocent civilians in the course of wars of this type generates more anti-US fighters than we kill [4].

Rather than escalate our involvement in Afghanistan, while maintaining a somewhat reduced force in Iraq, it would make a lot more sense to withdraw our military forces promptly and completely from both countries, and to offer them economic aid to be administered by the UN.


  1. Nir Rosen, "The Broken State", The National, November 28. 2008
  2. BBC Report, "Deadly missiles strike Pakistan", BBC, 23 January 2009
  3. Amnesty International, "Pakistan: US involvement in civilian deaths", Amnesty International, 31 January 2006
  4. Stephen Kinzer, "The reality of war in Afghanistan", The Boston Globe, October 15, 2008

Comments can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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