Afghanistan then and now

By Mike Dorf

In the Introduction to his 1989 book "The Examined Life," Robert Nozick wrote:
I used to think it important, when I was younger, to have an opinion on just about every topic: euthanasia, minimum-wage legislation, who would win the next American League pennant, whether Sacco and/or Vanzetti were guilty, whether there were any synthetic necessary truths--you name it.  When I met someone who had an opinion on a topic I hadn't even heard of, I felt a need to form one too.  Now I find it very easy to say I don't have an opinion on something and don't need one either, even when the topic elicits active public controversy, so I am somewhat bemused by my earlier stance.
As I have gotten older, I have found myself following in Nozick's footsteps in this regard, but with a handicap that did not limit him: As a blogger, I have imposed on myself the duty of stating views of one sort or another several times per week.  Of course, there is always so much going on that even if I wrote multiple entries per day I couldn't possibly express an opinion about everything in the law, much less the wider world.  Still, some subjects--such as what to make of the President's plan for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan, followed by a withdrawal in 2011--seem so pressing, that to be remotely au courant, a blogger on anything relating to public affairs should say something about them, even if it's only something like "there are lots of competing considerations here; I'm no expert in foreign policy or counter-insurgency; this is a hard call."  But no one needs to hear that.  Thus, recognizing the limits of my expertise--which is to say that I have no expertise whatsoever on this subject--here goes.

1) I agreed with then-Senate candidate Obama back when he opposed the Iraq war, distinguishing "dumb wars" from smart ones.  I found myself reminded of the horrific excuse for clear thinking that led many people to support the Iraq war in 2003 when, earlier this week, I read Thomas Friedman's recollection of his own view:

To me, the most important reason for the Iraq war was never W.M.D. It was to see if we could partner with Iraqis to help them build something that does not exist in the modern Arab world: a state, a context, where the constituent communities — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — write their own social contract for how to live together without an iron fist from above.
Really??  I'm sorry but it should not have ever counted as a respectable argument to say that one country should bomb and invade another, and topple the latter's regime, to experiment with making an example out of the invaded country.  That fact, no doubt, explains why the Bush Administration marketed the war on other grounds.

2) Even if, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan started out as a good--or at least a justifiable--war, that was over eight years ago. As Hendrik Hertzberg recently wrote in the New Yorker, Obama's approach to Afghanistan, both in the Presidential campaign and during his Presidency, has "contained an almost subliminal suggestion that somehow the clock could be turned back—that the events of the Afghanistan war’s first months could be replayed, this time with a better outcome."  But it isn't so.  Although Obama's speech on Tuesday was generally well received (as are nearly all of his speeches), it was, in one key respect, Bushian or even Giulianian: The repeated invocation of 9/11 had the virtue of being relevant to the history of our involvement in Afghanistan but seemed to obscure more than it explained the justification for sending more troops now.

3) To my mind, the Administration is suffering from a well-known psychological phenomenon called "loss aversion" that makes people place greater value on avoiding the loss of X than on gaining X (beyond what can be explained by the diminishing marginal utility of X).  To prevent the distortions that loss aversion can generate, sophisticated trading firms do not have their traders retain a portfolio from day to day, so that each morning a trader looks at his portfolio with a fresh eye, rather than holding on to bad investments that he bought for too much in the hope of recouping his investment.  Loss aversion explains why people sometimes throw good money after bad.

How does loss aversion figure into the Afghanistan policy?  Having already spent 8 years and hundreds of lives of American service members in Afghanistan, it's tempting to want to do the job right now.  With respect to a war like Iraq that should not have been waged in the first place, it's relatively simple to respond with what is still the most important question John Kerry ever asked:  "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"  If you think, as Obama does, that the Afghanistan war was not a mistake, then this question does not seem so salient.  But it should be.

Consider a thought experiment.  Suppose that the situation in Afghanistan were roughly as it is except that we did not have any troops there.  Would anyone seriously argue that we ought to send tens of thousands of troops there? If yes, then let that person convince us that doing so would be the right move at this point.  Perhaps the best case one could make would depend on preventing the human rights abuses that the Taliban would undoubtedly perpetrate (especially against women and girls) should it return to power.  That would be a respectable argument but it's hardly one that the U.S. or any other country routinely pursues in its use of force internationally.

4) I suppose one might think that we have a moral obligation to see the job through on the you-break-it-you-own-it principle.  Interestingly, that argument makes much more sense with respect to Iraq--which we really did break--than with respect to Afghanistan--which was broken long before we got there.  In saying that, I don't mean that life was good under Saddam, but its badness was not sufficient to justify our invading.  Having invaded without lawful justification (as I said at the time) we had an obligation to put in place a functioning government.  Our responsibility to the people of Afghanistan is more limited.  Having been justified in toppling the Taliban regime, we discharged our duty once we replaced it with a less bad government.  If we want to stay now, it would have to be either for humanitarian reasons (see 3 above) or because it's in our strategic interest.

5) Testifying before Congress yesterday, Secretary Gates took some heat for what really is a contradictory position: That we'll keep the troop levels high for 18 months and then draw down AND that the drawdown will be timed to the Afghan military's readiness to go it alone.  This is a consistent position only if it takes exactly 18 months to get the Afghans up to speed.  If it takes longer, then either the 18-month figure won't hold or we'll withdraw without meeting the target.

Do I have a better plan?  Not really.  Here I'll fall back on my Nozickian prerogative to have no opinion and on my lack of expertise, which gives me at least some hope that my doubts will be proven wrong.