January 23, 2011

Why Are We in Afghanistan?

Although WikiLeaks has thus far released many eye-opening State Department cables, I have yet to see a cable in which US diplomats explain why we’re at war in Afghanistan.  That would be an important revelation, far more important than the vast majority of cables already released. 

The Pentagon Papers, you might remember, contained a memo from the Johnson Administration admitting its real reason for staying in Vietnam:

70% - To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat.
20% - To keep [South Vietnam] (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.
10% - To permit the people [of South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.
ALSO - To emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.
NOT - To 'help a friend’

Well I’d like to know the Obama Administration’s real reason for continuing the war in Afghanistan.  Obama claims that it’s about disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda, but, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta, there are no more than 100 al-Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan.  While much of al-Qaeda relocated to Pakistan in late 2001, US National Counterterrorism Director Michael Leiter estimates that there are only 300 or so al-Qaeda guys there.

If Obama really wanted to protect Americans from al-Qaeda, then he would end the occupation, which, more than anything else, is putting American lives at risk.  As Robert Pape writes:

New research provides strong evidence that suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance…

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation, according to extensive research that we conducted at the University of Chicago's Project on Security and Terrorism, where we examined every one of the over 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to the present day. As the United States has occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, which have a combined population of about 60 million, total suicide attacks worldwide have risen dramatically -- from about 300 from 1980 to 2003, to 1,800 from 2004 to 2009. Further, over 90 percent of suicide attacks worldwide are now anti-American. [From 1980 to 2003, no more than 10% of all suicide attacks were anti-American.]  The vast majority of suicide terrorists hail from the local region threatened by foreign troops, which is why 90 percent of suicide attackers in Afghanistan are Afghans.

Although some have claimed that the US needs to stay to build up the Karzai government and prevent the Taliban from regaining power, there’s no reason to believe that the Taliban would again allow al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a safe haven.  In the weeks following 9/11, the Taliban offered to hand over bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives.  It just wanted to do so in a face-saving manner, something which George W. Bush found unacceptable.  Stephen Walt points out that, given all the trouble that al-Qaeda has caused for the Taliban, “if they were lucky enough to regain power, it is hard to believe they would give us a reason to come back in force.” 

So the question remains: Why does Obama still have 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan?  Why does he continue sacrificing American blood and treasure in this unnecessary and immoral war?  Noam Chomsky speculates:

Obama and his advisers are making a political decision. They know that the war is unpopular. A majority of the population by now thinks we shouldn’t be there. But they also know that if they get out of Afghanistan without something that they can call a victory they’ll be slaughtered by the right-wing propaganda system. And I suspect they’re trying to find a way to hang on long enough so they can have a situation which maybe they can sell as a victory and then partially withdraw.

Unless WikiLeaks releases a cable proving otherwise, I’m going to have to assume that Chomsky’s speculation is correct.

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