Afghanistan’s strategic importance is still up in the air
Michael Gerson is entitled to his belief that the war in Afghanistan is a strategic necessity, but he could probably make the point without thoughtlessly dismissing critics of the war:
The strategic importance of Afghanistan is difficult for critics of the war to deny. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, which began in state-sponsored terror academies there, are not yet generally regarded as a myth. The spread of Taliban havens in Afghanistan would permit al-Qaeda to return to its historical operating areas. This would allow, according to one administration official to whom I spoke, “perhaps a hundredfold expansion of their geographic and demographic area of operation.” And Taliban advances in Afghanistan could push a fragile, nuclear Pakistan toward chaos.
Except, it’s actually pretty easy for critics to deny the strategic importance of Afghanistan. One of the most common claims from the administration and its supporters is that creating a stable government in Afghanistan is and has been an integral part of preventing terrorist attacks against Western targets. The argument, as I understand it, is that instability is a breeding ground for lawlessness, which in turn creates the space for terrorists groups to operate and plan attacks against Americans and our allies. The problem though, is that this doesn’t really hold up. There’s not much evidence to suggest that a stable government in Afghanistan will lead to a lower overall incidence of terrorism. Of the major terrorist attacks (against Western targets) since 9/11, the two largest – the March 2004 attack in Spain and the July 2005 attack in Britain – were planned and executed within the respective countries. Indeed, the same is true of 9/11.
What’s more, and as Matt Yglesias has repeatedly noted, the terrorist attacks that we’re really worried about – nuclear, chemical or biological attacks – are unlikely to be carried out by terrorist groups located in Afghanistan, or even Pakistan for that matter. In all likelihood, those plots will be developed and carried out by terrorists within the targeted country. As for Pakistan’s stability, it’s worth pointing out that Pakistan has only become more unstable since we invaded Afghanistan and began attacking targets within Pakistan. I don’t know enough about Pakistani politics to convincingly argue this, but I could easily imagine someone making the case that our involvement in the region has – on the whole – had a net negative effect on Pakistan’s stability.
The simple fact is that neither Gerson or the Obama administration has offered enough evidence to support the claim that our security – and that of our allies – is inexorably tied up in Afghanistan’s stability. Indeed, from the standpoint of this semi-informed observer, it seems pretty likely that our movement in Afghanistan has far more to do with the sheer force of institutional inertia, rather than an honest account of our interests in the region.