Yon on Afghanistan

I admire Michael Yon very much. I consider him the modern equivalent to Ernie Pyle, and fear that his fate will be the same. He has the interests of the combat trooper at heart, and he isn’t afraid to speak truth to power. And yet. And yet. I am afraid I can’t agree with him in his latest essay on Afghanistan. Or let’s say, I agree with almost everything he says, and yet come to a different conclusion.

If I may summarize his position, it is that:

Tactical
1. The surge is winning.
2. More troops, or at least, the same number of troops for longer, will ultimately beat the Talibs*

Strategic
3. We are engaged in nation-building, admit it or not
4. We only win if we leave behind a viable nation
5. Building the new AF will take decades


On the tactical front, I heard the same arguments before, during, and after, my time in Viet Nam. There are those who will say “Oh God, not that again”, with the back of their hand against their forehead, and ask why I drag the supposed lessons of ancient history into the discussion, and point out that IQ and AF are very different from VN. Well, it’s always different. The lessons of history never apply. No-one ever defines the term ‘ultimately‘. As my favorite moose would say “This time for sure!

Yon claims we destroyed, then recreated, a nation in IQ. I agree with the first part. I don’t think anyone can make a meaningful claim about the second part, not for another ten years. But even if we have created a viable nation with a veneer of democracy, the impression I get is that we substituted one set of absolutist rulers for another, and this one is an ally of Iran. Strategically, we accomplished nothing. The region is not more stable, the world’s oil supply is not more reliable, and the US is not safer, but 4,000 Americans are dead. No matter our tactical success, the game was not worth the candle.

We have no strategic interests in AF. Our stated goals, going into AF, were to remove the Taliban from power, destroy the AQ power base, and kill Osama Bin Ladin. Nowhere did we say we were going to build a new nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. To claim that as our driving force now is to succumb to an extreme form of mission creep. It would be nice if AF had democracy, paved roads, and KFCs, and it would be marvelous if shy AF girls could go to school, but that’s not my job, man. Afghanis are not Americans, and those who say they are are the ones who, as Tom Wolf says, believe that an Englishman would talk just like an American, if only you woke him up early enough in the morning. They are not like us. They have their own agendas, and mostly they want to be left alone.

Yon says that AF wasn’t a nation when we went in, and that is correct. It won’t be a nation when we leave, no matter how long we stay. The best we will be able to do is set up a coalition of absolutist rulers (if we’re lucky, with a veneer of democracy), capable of suppressing the minority opposition (currently known as the Taliban). They won’t like us — they don’t like us now. They will be allied with Pakistan, not us. To accomplish this will require sacrifice of more American lives, and more hundreds of billions of dollars. Do we really believe that spending a billion dollars on road building in AF will bring us a greater long term benefit than spending an equivalent amount on repairing roads in the US?

We did what we set out to do. The Taliban is, by our own admission, a threat to no-one outside of AF. AQ is scattered, and no longer dependent upon AF bases for support. Indeed, I suspect they get more support from bases in PK, our so-called allies. And OBL is dead.

I am not one to lay great import on OBL’s death, except as a useful excuse. It’s a milestone. We can declare victory, hoist the ‘mission accomplished’ flag, and sail home. Let Afghanistan return to the obscurity it so richly deserves.

*Qualifier: That’s my impression of his impression, but he’s willing to leave it up to Petraeus, and he thinks the general should make the decision based solely on the situation in AF. I can agree with that. I think it was Eisenhower who told his people that they should let him make the decisions about political and economic tradeoffs, and not water down their advice based on what they thought was possible. My concern is that Obama is no Eisenhower, and may be too deferential to the military.

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2 Responses to “Yon on Afghanistan”

  1. Kurt Says:

    I almost commented “not to mention the deaths of tens of thousands of AF’s (I use that number because I don’t recall the exact amount I last read)”–however, I don’t know the death toll before intervention and, while it’s wrong that so many people are dying, I’m not sure it’s relevant to the argument of “stay or go” and “if stay, what and why”.

    We can’t reduce AQ or the Taliban to minor roles permanently unless we are able to economically empower the country village by village, women and men, in a way that they can integrate with their culture. To twist on Pogo, we have met the allies (or however you’d categorize them), and while we share common human needs, they are not us. And that kind of change doesn’t seem permanent in a wild place like AF without on-call support from someone.

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      As Yon says, it’s nation-building, and you have to ask, do _they_ want to build a nation? Do _they_ want _us_ to build a nation for them?

      If we wanted to stay there for the next 30 years (let’s say 5 to suppress the Taliban, and then one 25-yr generation, until the kids born after that are old enough to impact society), spending more than we spend on NASA each year, and losing another 1,000 or so Americans, we might be able to make an impact. Yon says it will take a century, and I wouldn’t accuse him of crazy talk.

      But for every friendly AF’r, who says “I want you here, I need your help”, there’s another ten who look on us as invaders. I remember reading of one survey of people in rural AF, where a significant proportion (as in ~50%) didn’t know why we were there.

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