war in afghanistan

What would winning the War in Afghanistan look like? America has been at war there for 13 years and you would expect that after thousands of casualties and spending immense sums of our tax dollars something that could be deemed victory would have been achieved by now. Instead of that we are presented with soon to be retiring Rep. Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, chiding the America people and President Obama for not wanting to keep fighting the longest war in our history. In a February 24th speech to National Press Club the California Republican claimed that we were just shy of achieving a “safe and secure Afghanistan.”

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif)
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif)

What is McKeon’s evidence for that improbable claim? He is impressed that the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) have doubled in size and can actually fight some on their own rather than tag along behind U.S. troops as they chase the Taliban guerrillas temporarily out of this or that piece of territory. Students of the War in Vietnam will recall that was something the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) also managed to achieve. In the end it didn’t matter all that much then either.

McKeon is also impressed that continued U.S. military presence has been endorsed by the Afghan politicians ‘elected’ to the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan’s parliament, and purportedly by the Afghan public, as evidenced by a public opinion poll. Given that Freedom House rates Afghanistan as ‘Not Free’ there is good reason to treat such expressions of support very carefully.

He touts new schools, roads and irrigation systems constructed. He likes the expansion of the internet and the multiplicity of new electronic media sources. That much of the former are physically insecure and the latter are concentrated in the capital of Kabul ought to give the rest of us pause before celebrating.

What’s needed, McKeon claims, is resolve. To support that he made two comparisons. The first was silly: “Afghanistan is not going to turn into Sweden overnight.” What Republican wants any country to turn into a social-democracy like Sweden? (Perhaps he was thinking about mountainous Switzerland.)

The second comparison is at least superficially plausible: “It took the British 12 years to put down the Malayan communists.” Yes, Britain did win a long counterinsurgency war against Communist guerrillas there. However there are major problems with that historical example.

One is that the Malayan communists were overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese, thus a minority group, and backed by the People’s Republic of China, which shared no border with Malaysia. Those weaknesses proved fatal. By contrast, the Afghan Taliban are members of the ethnic Pashtun plurality in Afghanistan, and move easily back and forth across the border with Pakistan, where they enjoy the support of elements of the Pakistani government.

Another is that Britain’s Malaysia might have been poor and exploited but its economy was based on legal commodities, including rice, rubber and tin. That is not true of Afghanistan. Notwithstanding all the new (in some cases still functioning) infrastructure we have built, the economy of Afghanistan still consists of foreign aid and opium. (McKeon never mentions opium.) As a consequence, whoever rules the country will seek quasi-rents from those sources. Forget building the sort of healthy economy that can support a liberal democracy.

Expecting the current venal leadership of the country to wage a war for the survival of their regime when the American military will do it for them is a mistake. Perhaps they would fight with more heart if they knew the U.S. military was not always coming to the rescue but it is certain that most have made careful plans to exit the country to enjoy the fruits from corruption should the Taliban prevail.

What McKeon may be worried about is not the fate of Afghanistan but his own political legacy. Both of his wars – Afghanistan and Iraq – were foreign policy fiascos. What does Americans have to show for all of the blood and money they have cost?

There is more to ask about that political legacy. Back on May 5, 2010 McKeon posted a column on his blog bragging that Republicans Members on the House Armed Services Committee had embraced “Ronald Reagan’s peace through strength” mantle. Indeed. Just for a moment consider what a different history we would have had if Reagan had not funded and armed the fanatical Sunni Islamist guerrillas who eventually drove the Red Army out of the country. Would it have been so terrible for the Soviets to raise living standards in Afghanistan to the same levels of the neighboring Central Asian Soviet Republics? McKeon expressed pleasure that many women in Afghanistan are now receiving educations. But imagine how many more women in Afghanistan would have gotten educations over the last four decades if the Soviets had not been driven out. After all, the bearded religious fanatics who Reagan described as “freedom fighters,” the people who later morphed into al Qaeda and the Taliban , were motivated by opposition to universal female education and other modern social reforms attempted by the pro-Soviet government in Kabul. Could it be that McKeon is haunted by the knowledge that the horror and waste of his favorite war are ultimately the fault of his party’s hero, Ronald Reagan?

Title: Creedence Clearwater Revival. Image: McKeon's congressional website.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.