For the first seventeen years of the Peloponnesian War, Athens and Sparta fought to something of a draw. Sparta dominated the land, but could not breach Athens’ walls. Athens dominated the sea, but could not march inland with enough force to defeat Sparta.
This balance was broken only when the Athenians decided to send a fleet to Sicily to intervene in an intra-Sicilian fight. The Athenians bungled the initial campaign, and Syracuse – the target of their ire – was able to send for Spartan help. The Spartans defeated the Athenians.
At this point, nothing had really changed in the Greek balance of power. Unfortunately, the Athenians decided to double down, sending another fleet to bail out the original expeditionary fleet. When this force was annihilated, Athens had nothing left in the tank.
I try to keep this in mind when I read arguments that democracies don’t have the stomach for war. Dictatorships may enjoy the fruits of national mobilization, but most dictators are keenly aware that in the absence of free elections, all ballots are nine millimeters. They settle their wars before their power base is eroded. Democracies, on the other hand, do not abide the subtleties of international intrigue. Roused to war, they tend to stay at war as their grievances grow.
Iraq is the obvious analogy to the Sicilian expedition: we had no need to fight there, fought there poorly, and then sent wave after wave to try to rescue our original bad decision. We are still there, years after any possible objective was either achieved or proven preposterous.
Afghanistan was the good war – incompetently fought, but against a group that attacked us and had every intention of attacking us again.
The problem is that our incompetence has allowed our enemy to grow, while our strategy has bogged down. We are still making our chess moves from early October 2001, and that game has been played.
One of the first things we seem to have forgotten – and perhaps the most crucial – is that we do not care about Afghanistan. We went to Afghanistan because Al Qaeda was there. If Al Qaeda had been in Yemen or Somalia or Colombia we would have gone there. It just happened to be Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda is not wedded to Afghanistan. Their name might be “the base,” but the base is quite mobile. Right now, rumor is the leadership is in Pakistan. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But we should have at least as much flexibility to move as they do.
Instead, we are beefing up our involvement in the static elements of Afghan life. We are now supposed to be winning hearts and minds – whatever that means, when the thing that sets the hearts and minds against us is the fact that we are there – and creating security in Kabul and Kandahar. It is a fool’s errand, for the simple reason that we cannot protect Kabul from Kabul. If the Afghans want to live in a civilized society, they will build one for themselves. If they do not, we are hardly going to impose one upon them. Meanwhile, the cost in blood and treasure is borne by us.
It should go without saying after our experience in Vietnam that acting as the muscle end of a notoriously corrupt government is not a sustainable position. Without US backing, the Karzai regime would fall. Let’s not put too fine a point on electoral fraud; the real act of denying popular will is keeping Karzai alive. For his part, Karzai is holding himself hostage; in essence, his threat to the US is “turn a blind eye to my corruption, because if you stop supporting me, the Taliban will take over.” It’s a bluff that might as well be called.
The elephant in the room in Pakistan. Pakistan is the real supporter of Al Qaeda and LeT and the rest of the jihadist movement. Jihadism is a key element of Pakistan’s security strategy; the Pakistani military exists to recapture Kashmir, and Pakistan cannot take Kashmir by conventional means. Terror is the only lever that can work against an enemy nearly five times larger. So it is probably wishful thinking to imagine that Pakistan would ever sell out the jihadists. Not only would the jihadists kill the Pakistani leader who tried, but too many stakeholders in the current Pakistani power structure depend on them.
One of terrorists’ great advantages is that they have the initiative. The good guys have to defend all the days that nothing is happening; terrorists fight on the time and place of their choosing. Reversing this trend is imperative. Somehow we need to chase sufficiently quickly that we can bring our resource advantages to bear. We will always miss the lone crazy – we cannot even stop a couple of losers trying to get on a reality TV show – but we ought to be able to break up large groups.
Obama’s decision to increase modestly seems calculated to split the political difference: to not be seen evacuating under fire while keeping the cost down. Appearances matter, and the position has some merit. But the war is too important and too expensive to leave on the back burner. We spend a monstrous amount on defense, and every one of those dollars is money we did not spend shoring up our financial affairs at home – the ultimate mainspring of our strength in the first place.
We need a fluid force that is able to take the battle to Al Qaeda wherever it may be. To get this force we need to remove the other demands on our military resources. We need to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, to stop our troops from sitting in a defensive posture on behalf of other people and put them on offense in our own service. Standing still is the wrong war at the wrong time, and digging in 30,000 extra troops to prolong the period of standing still only gives us 30,000 more troops to remove down the line.
The cause that brought us to Afghanistan was just, and remains just. But it wasn’t Afghanistan, and we forget it at our peril.