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The War for Afghanistan
July 16, 2009 11:15 AM   Subscribe

How to win in Afghanistan? Peter Bergen looks at the capability of the Taliban insurgents, NATO troops, and the Afghan army and police, compares the current conflict to the Soviet invasion, and weighs the dangers of civilian casualties and popular support. He concludes that renewed American effort in the fight will "produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state." (via Matthew Yglesias)
posted by Pants! (45 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

I'm a pretty hardcore pacifist, but I find this argument persuasive and I've been following the debate for a while. The real issue, unfortunately, is that I suspect we can no longer afford to be at war halfway around the world. That said, we may have an obligation to tighten our belts and follow through on what was promised in 1989.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:35 AM on July 16, 2009

I've read about half of it so far.

My reaction is kind of, "yeah, but so what?" He put together some good arguments about how it is "winnable."

Does that make it morally right for us to occupy foreign countries, just because we can?
Does anyone believe we can occupy every country that ever harbors terrorists; that they won't just move somewhere else?
Do we really want to displace militants into Pakistan (where everyone acknowledges Bin Laden is), further destabilizing a country with nuclear arms?

In short, yes we can maybe "win." I just don't know what we are trying to win, why, or how it can be justified morally.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:49 AM on July 16, 2009

No FPP on strategies for either Afghanistan or Iraq is complete without at least a passing reference to David Kilcullen (wikipedia link). I highly recommend his Charlie Rose interviews, including the one from 2007.
posted by krautland at 11:50 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Declare victory and leave.
posted by PlayboyBuddy at 11:51 AM on July 16, 2009

And this:

Another possible objection to the introduction of more U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan is that, inevitably, they will kill more civilians, the main issue that angers Afghans about the foreign military presence. In fact, the presence of more boots on the ground is likely to reduce civilian casualties, because historically it has been the overreliance on American air strikes—as a result of too few ground forces—which has been the key cause of civilian deaths.

is somewhere between disingenuous and just plain bullshit. So our troops on the ground won't be calling airstrikes to protect themselves? Obama is going to go on tv and say, "well sure I let that platoon of marines get slaughtered - it was either that or let them use air support that might have hurt civilians?" With mid-terms coming up? Give me a break.

The fact is, war kills people. More war = more deaths. It was so when Bush was in office and, as uncomfortable as it may make some people, it's still just as true now.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:54 AM on July 16, 2009

Declare victory and leave.
We already tried that.
posted by Flunkie at 11:57 AM on July 16, 2009

Obama is going to go on tv and say. "well sure I let that platoon of marines get slaughtered - it was either that or let them use air support that might have hurt civilians?"

Why would he talk about it at all? Since when has he or any president said anything about civilian deaths beyond platitudes like "Every life is precious, bla bla bla".

I mean how is the hypothetical you proposed any different then having to say things like "yeah I let those troops die because I wasn't willing to pull them out bring them all home right away"

So the answer is no: Obama is not going to go on TV say anything like that, no matter what happens, because there's no reason to do it.
posted by delmoi at 12:06 PM on July 16, 2009

I know I just commented about Kilcullen above but the more I read of the posted article the more I am reminded of David's "Twenty-Eight Articles", a how-to guide for junior commanders engaged in counterinsurgency, from the Air University website (PDF link), the document that originally made him famous. I'll stop short of calling this a copy but the author was at least inspired by him.
posted by krautland at 12:07 PM on July 16, 2009

Some of the BS is LOL worthy:
Karzai is still a somewhat popular leader in Afghanistan. Fifty-two percent of Afghans say that the president is doing a good job, only 15 percent less than the number of Americans who say the same thing about Obama
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:16 PM on July 16, 2009

The Triage report mentioned in the Charlie Rose interview (pdf)
posted by acro at 12:18 PM on July 16, 2009

Well, no, that's not true that more troops would necessarily equal more deaths. More boots on the ground really can reduce casualty counts. For example, had we gone into Grenada with 500 guys and air support, we'd probably have defeated the Cubans, but a lot more of their soldiers and a lot more of our soldiers would have died, and there would undoubtedly have been a much greater civilian casualty count as well. Instead, we plowed in there with overwhelming force on sea, air and especially foot soldiers (I was one of those). Because of the overwhelming and obvious superiority of our forces compared to theirs, most of their forces quickly submitted, many without firing a shot. Sheer intimidation can be a life-saver, on both sides of the conflict.
posted by jamstigator at 12:25 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Center for a New American Security panel discussion of the Triage Report (mp3)
posted by acro at 12:26 PM on July 16, 2009

So our troops on the ground won't be calling airstrikes to protect themselves? Obama is going to go on tv and say, "well sure I let that platoon of marines get slaughtered - it was either that or let them use air support that might have hurt civilians?"

What kind of airstrikes are we talking about? I assumed the article was referring to the recently debated issue of American reliance on unmanned drone strikes. That is not the same as a platoon of Marines in Helmand province calling in air support for protection or assistance.

The President does not go on television every time there's an incident with US casualties in Afghanistan or Iraq. And even if he did for some reason, I would hope President Obama is capable enough to say that sometimes fighting a war means you need to choose the option that will put more American troops at risk but save the lives of innocent civilians.
posted by lullaby at 1:13 PM on July 16, 2009

I think Bergen makes some excellent arguments. Unfortunately, he didn't address my main concern: corruption. Everything I've heard, these days, suggests that Afghanistan is very corrupt, and that Karzai is very reluctant to deal with that. With widespread corruption and poppy production, I think Afghanistan could end up more like Mexico or Columbia than, say, Germany. Still, that would be an improvement over the Taliban days.

I just don't know what we are trying to win, why, or how it can be justified morally.

I think that's a fair question. My view is that we basically had to invade Afghanistan after 9/11. Even if you think that we shouldn't have (and I disagree), I think you'd have to be detached from reality to think this wasn't inevitable.

Having invaded Afghanistan, we can either scoot out, or make it better than when we found it. I've always felt that the main objective of the Bush administration invasion of Iraq was to create an example of how a middle eastern country could be transformed for the better by democracy etc. If this vision could have been carried out, it would have been win-win for the US and Iraq in many ways, but I always believed that this was starry-eyed idealism.

Having said that, we are now in Afghanistan, and I always wondered why Bush couldn't work with what we've already got. Having invaded this country, in fact I believe that we do have a moral obligation to assist with the reconstruction. Some may argue that we've already improved the country past the point where we found it; the problem with this is that it probably wouldn't be too stable if we abandoned ship.

Part of the whole reason that Afghanistan turned into such a nasty place was due to how we abandoned it after the Cold War. We left our toys and training behind, and the Taliban prospered in the aftermath of Russia's destructive invasion. If we leave now, what kinds of geopolitical messes will that leave for the next generation? Will we just be ceding ground back to the Taliban? I think we've been here before! This would be unfair to Afghans, and perhaps our own children.
posted by Edgewise at 1:14 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

acro: I get a bad link for The Triage report mentioned in the Charlie Rose interview (pdf) and can't download the file. could you please provide a summary?
posted by krautland at 1:16 PM on July 16, 2009

So our troops on the ground won't be calling airstrikes to protect themselves?

If you have enough ground personnel, then you shouldn't have to constantly call in air support to protect yourself, because you don't find yourself getting overwhelmed all the time.

There is no serious questioning that a smaller contingent of ground forces leads to a higher reliance on air power. We've seen it over and over; when you try to minimize (or eliminate) ground forces, theater commanders are left with air strikes as their only tool, and they use them much more heavily than they otherwise might if they had the option of sending in infantry.

Ideally, we'd want ground forces sufficient to do to Afghanistan what we did to Grenada — overwhelming, irresistible force, essentially everywhere at once. But that's not going to happen, because we just don't have enough soldiers. But that's the ideal; the closer you get to every engagement being between a human being with a rifle and an enemy similarly equipped, the fewer civilian casualties you get. As you rely more on air and artillery support, unintended deaths (not to mention infrastructure damage) go up as the weapons necessarily become less discriminating.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:19 PM on July 16, 2009

Win what? There is no definition here of what the end aim is. Until such aim is clearly defined there can be no solution and no exit plan. I wonder if an exit plan is even considered at all as it would definitely be politically and economically useful for the West to have a presence in the area indefinitely neatly sandwiching Iran which is the biggest of all bogeymen to the USA.
posted by adamvasco at 1:19 PM on July 16, 2009

I don't see how Afghanistan can be left prosperous and relatively uncorrupt while its largest industry and export remains contraband.
posted by anthill at 1:28 PM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

As Anthill suggests:

we spend zillions on our war against drugs in this country and allow the poppy stuff (makes heroin) to grow there lest the farmers not have a good cash crop. But it is the Taliban that seems to be using the money from the drugs and this allows them to buy weapons etc.
posted by Postroad at 1:36 PM on July 16, 2009

The national government getting the blessing to look the other way on poppy production (or flat out legalize it locally) would probably be a major blow to the taliban and have no real impact on opiate consumption in the west. It's also not going to happen unless a miracle occurs.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:44 PM on July 16, 2009

I think the real question is "Why win in Afghanistan?" or even "What is there we could possibly win, other than a continued frain on our resources?"

Afghanistan is never going to love us, or embrace democracy (at least as we understand the term), and our continued presence (just as in Vietnam) will require us to serially embrace various unsavory bedfellows, and that at great cost, in troops and money and more importantly, to our values. There's nothing for us to "win", so the discussion of various strategies to hang on, or buy favor, or even hand off, is pointless. Time (once again) to declare victory and leave.
posted by orthogonality at 2:02 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Triage: Here's another link directly from the CNAS website (pdf)
posted by acro at 2:09 PM on July 16, 2009

let's hear the esteemed Ret. Col. Patrick Lang on this topic:
Counterinsurgency" as a developed modern doctrine of warfare was created in the aftermath of World War II as a system of defense against "Wars of National Liberation" that erupted across the world as various peoples rose against European colonialism. The French in Indochina and Algeria, the British in Malaya, Cyprus, Palestine/Israel, etc. were among the foremost developers of this doctrine. In its fullest form the doctrine can be reduced to three basic elements; 1-Political warfare designed to eliminate the symbolic causes of revolt. This would include such efforts as a reduction of public corruption, adequate representation in government for all parts of the population, etc. 2- Economic development that provides incomes sufficiently large for the masses so that they are not inclined to risk the hazards of support for insurgents. 3- Counterguerrilla operations. Such operations must be a hazard for the insurgents and NOT for the population. We have not been doing well at that in Afghanistan. These counterguerrilla operations are conducted so as to provide a protective "screen" behind which "1" and "2" can occur.

Basically what is attempted in this doctrine is the construction of a society that is more attractive and viable than that promised by the insurgents. This is a big job, especially in a country like Afghanistan where much of what has to be done has not been done before. "Education" alone, "education" in the Western sense will be a massive long term project. IMO, the whole counterinsurgency thing, if applied successfully in Afghanistan will require a commitment of a century of effort by dedicated civilian and military personnel and many, many billions of dollars.
posted by geos at 3:57 PM on July 16, 2009

The article makes some convicing points, but my idea that Afghanistan is not going to be won still stands. Now it's the US army (or, coalition forces, call it how you like it), before it was The Red Army - the casualties were 14k soviet soldiers vs. 1 million afghans, not counting the millions displaced to Pakistan and other countries. And the Soviet Union lost the war. Badly.

And long before that, it was the British Imperial Army, and... it didn't win. You can conquer and partly control Kabul, but to really control the mountainous valleys where the poppy fields are, you'd need a million highly trained specialists, since that's precisely what you're fighting against.

And this:
the main issue that angers Afghans about the foreign military presence the foreign military presence itself.

(The few Afghans I know share my idea - they like to point out -not without more than a little pride- that many tried, but it took someone of the level of Gengis Khan and Tamerlane to leave a lasting mark in Afghan history)
posted by _dario at 5:07 PM on July 16, 2009

"This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you're killing.
-- John Paul Vann

I agree with President Obama that Iraq was a distraction from Afghanistan and Bush took his eyes off the ball, but I think it's too late for the US to solve it (if it ever was) and now we're just building a fancier barn door after the horses are gone. Bush let the situation deteriorate into something much more volatile and difficult, maybe even impossible, to solve.

A multinational approach through the UN or NATO might work (and terrorists based in Afghanistan/Pakistan are threats to Europe and other regions), but that region has never really been governed. The combination of ethnic and religious ties on both sides of a border that's almost impossible to control is a huge challenge.

it took someone of the level of Gengis Khan and Tamerlane to leave a lasting mark in Afghan history

And those guys played serious hardball.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:14 PM on July 16, 2009

Butcher & Bolt: David Loyn covers various conquests in Afghanistan from the 1800s to the present. Video lecture here.
posted by acro at 6:57 PM on July 16, 2009

Do you ever go back and read periodicals from the Vietnam War era? They're full of editorials debating hair-splitting distinctions among tactics, about which strategy will help us win: bombing, "hearts and minds", more ground troops, fewer ground troops, invading the North... You just wish you could go back in time and shake these people by the shoulders and say, "Forget it! None of it will work! The war is futile. Just stop the killing and get the troops home. I'm here from the 21st century to tell you the North will win the war and the world won't end. It turns out that Vietnam is not really that important from a geo-strategic standpoint. It's a backwater of little importance. All you're doing is killing poor people. You're not saving the world." Now, if a time-traveler came back here from the 22nd century, he would probably shake this guy's shoulders and say, "About Afghanistan... Forget it!"
posted by Faze at 7:06 PM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

For ordinary Afghans, the west is part of the machinery of corruption that thrives on the conflict.
posted by adamvasco at 12:50 AM on July 17, 2009

You just wish you could go back in time and shake these people by the shoulders and say, "Forget it! None of it will work! The war is futile. Just stop the killing and get the troops home. I'm here from the 21st century to tell you the North will win the war and the world won't end. It turns out that Vietnam is not really that important from a geo-strategic standpoint. It's a backwater of little importance. All you're doing is killing poor people. You're not saving the world." Now, if a time-traveler came back here from the 22nd century, he would probably shake this guy's shoulders and say, "About Afghanistan... Forget it!"
Maybe. Or he might say that like WW2, it was actually a good idea to fight the war. Or he might say that like the Korean war, it would achieve lasting benefits for at least part of the nation. We don't know.

The trouble with pacifists is, they're always refusing to fight the last war.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:34 AM on July 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

you'd need a million highly trained specialists, since that's precisely what you're fighting against.

This is the point that the article contests: it says 20,000 Taliban fighters. Do you have evidence for your figure or did it just seem like a nice number? I'm not a military expert, but it seems unlikely that there are a million combatants in a country of 33 million. Only 7% of Afghans even like the Taliban, let alone belong to it. That's consistent with a Columbia-style drug war: the fighters are hired hands of the drug lords, the supporters are the farmers directly under their thumb.

So the questions here are not primarily normative ones, but rather factual. If you've got better facts, bring 'em. But cite your sources, eh?

Win what? There is no definition here of what the end aim is.

How about a stable and secure nation-state where men and women can live and work, prosper and participate in their own self-governance? Maybe that seems a little pie in the sky to you, but if we reject traditional colonialist goals (and no one ever got rich invading Afghanistan) this has always been our aim.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:36 AM on July 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Was it a good idea to fight WW2? Was the Korean war a good idea? You might have thought otherwise if you were of the millions who was sacrificed to get it over with. The trouble with worshipers of Mars is, that they always justify the last war by saying, "Look, we're here now. This is how it is. We are alive. It is good. If we hadn't fought the last war, why who knows how things would be? I didn't die. You didn't die. It was a good war."
posted by Faze at 4:36 AM on July 17, 2009

anotherpanacea: Is this why Karzai has bought Dostum back into his government? The only thing this guy advocates is his own power, but as he is an Uzbek he will never be accepted by the majority Pashtuns who also just happen to make up the majority of the Taliban. Afghan politics are tribal politics and the borders are flimsy at best. The Durand line trumpeted in the FPP article was scratched on the map in colonial times and at least 16% of it is still disputed. The Pakistan tribal areas have never, I repeat never, been ruled by anyone except the tribes themselves and although they theoretically pertain to Pakistan, they unite against any outsider.
So this is not just an Afghan problem it's a Pakistan problem and a fundamentalist religious problem as well. I don't think that most of the think tanks, policy buffs, tacticians have a clue as to the mindset of the people they are up against. Every year more western troops get committed, more get killed and the locals play their own power games and happily accept the handouts from the US / World Bank / NGO's etc and continue to entrench their fiefdoms, kill their enemies, trade their opium and stick two fingers up at the moralising voices from afar.
posted by adamvasco at 5:51 AM on July 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is this why Karzai has bought Dostum back into his government?

I don't know what you're talking about. Slow down and try again: is what why Karzai has bought [brought] Dostum back into his government? Is there an argument here?

Political eaders bring powerful regional warlords into their governments because it's better to have them inside engaged in political infighting rather than outside engaged in physical violence. I take it you believe that Afghanistan is trapped in a feudal power struggle and can't really be modernized. It's your obligation to demonstrate that fact, since it depends on Afghanis being some fundamentally different species of being than you or I, such that they are constitutionally incapable of developing a larger loyalty or benign indifference to a central government.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:52 AM on July 17, 2009

Political Leaders, rather.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:53 AM on July 17, 2009

Was it a good idea to fight WW2? Was the Korean war a good idea? You might have thought otherwise if you were of the millions who was sacrificed to get it over with.

Are you asking if it was good for the US to enter these wars, or if it was good for these wars to have been fought in the first place? Your statement makes a lot more sense in the context of the second question, but the problem is that isn't so germane to the topic, since we have to decide what we should do from here on out, not what the situation should have been.

I think the real question is "Why win in Afghanistan?" or even "What is there we could possibly win, other than a continued frain on our resources?"

Those of you who think we should get out: are you prepared to see the Taliban retake control of Afghanistan? If this can be avoided, then my own answer is "hell no."

Vietnam had many valuable lessons, but it's not the only way a war can be fought, and counter-insurgencies can succeed. Can this one succeed? I'm not really sure, but I wouldn't just default to assuming that this is going to be Vietnam all over again.
posted by Edgewise at 7:34 AM on July 17, 2009

Is the Western model of the state inappropriate for Afghanistan?
The goals might be lofty and eloquent but the means are decidedly questionable. The day you forget revenge you are not a proper Pashtun. Hence rather than eliminating enemies each missile strike is creating more.
Mr Dostum is war criminal. Maybe you think that it is a good idea to invite a war criminal into a fledgling democratic government. That is your choice. I think that General Dostum is in Mr Karzai's corrupt government because he is another "bastard who is our bastard". This sort of crap policy will only rebound and bite the western alliance in the arse; and meanwhile more western soldiers will die. Please tell me what they are dying for?
posted by adamvasco at 8:14 AM on July 17, 2009

They're dying, at the moment, because to withdraw would mean a nasty civil war and a lot of Afghans dying. The problem, I think, is that our options to forestall that are increasingly narrow.

The article shows an extraordinary naivete. Citing the democratic enthusiasm of the last elections are laughable. The Afghans have turned away and disengaged en masse. Of course they have: Karzai's brother and Karzai's running mate (another war-criminal, Marshall Fahim) control the drug flows through Kabul and Kandahar respectively. The election preparations are deeply flawed, with all manner of shenanigans in the registration process. That Karzai retains any support at all shows only the poverty of the field. Karzai will be re-elected, but only because there is no alternative. And even worse, in a desperate bid to hold onto power, Karzai is turning back to the warlords he marginalised in the last four years: Dostum has been invited back from his exile in Turkey; Fahim is once more on the ticket (having been kicked off the VP position in 2004). It's shameful, and the international community is supporting it.

The author also has no idea about the legitimation processes in Afghanistan. The only manifestation of "Afghan-ness" comes from the urban elite or by people exhorting others to kill foreigners. These manifestations are dwarfed by the bitter legacy of ethnic divides left over from the 90s. The Shah's era is gone for good - and the reason the war happened was through a modernisation effort driven by the urban elite and foreigners that alienated the rural population. kind of like what is happening now. Nor does he have a clue about political economies in conflict areas. There may only be 20,000 Talibs, but the problem is not only the Talibs. It's those who profit from the lack of legality. They do not want lawfulness, because their comparative advantage stems from an unstable state, and have every incentive to destabilise the state. Also, and i know this is a generalisation, but Afghans don't react well to being told what to do. We need to change the way the soldiers are being experienced on the ground - what we're doing now is putting wasps into a beehive. i know people on the ground who right now regret Bush's absence.
posted by YouRebelScum at 8:39 AM on July 17, 2009

Do the Russians still have ambitions in Afghanistan?

If they do, perhaps there's the exit strategy: let them have it. If they're dumb enough to take it, of course — but perhaps if it was pre-conquered, they wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to just walk in and declare victory, twenty years late. It would be a hell of a PR coup for them.

The business with the airbase in Kazakhstan last year makes me think that they still want to be a player in that region, and probably see it as their backyard into which we are interfering. And maybe they're right.

Maybe the best solution would be to make nice, admit that we had no idea what we were getting into when we started shipping Stingers to the Taliban, and let them have their fair shot at the Kobayashi Maru.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:52 AM on July 17, 2009

The Russians just don't want an Islamist state which could hurt the stability of the FSU. They are playing a subtle game, maintaining influence amongst the Northern Alliance without interfering obviously. They will never ever ever again walk into Afghanistan.
posted by YouRebelScum at 9:04 AM on July 17, 2009

Don't know what it says about their strategy in Afghanistan but Russia recently allowed the US to begin transhipment of non-military supplies through their territory (BBC).
posted by pots at 10:24 AM on July 17, 2009

"Was it a good idea to fight WW2?"

Ask a Polish Jew.
Morality, in most cases, doesn't hold for certain wars or engagements. Put simply - there are people you must kill, there are organizations that the world cannot tolerate the existence of. You must fight them or die yourself and allow far more destruction and death than would be caused by opposition.

Back in the day, the Genghis Khan could sweep through Asia and slaughter at will because the world was relatively unsophisticated and could tolerate certain kinds of oppression. It simply wasn't that dangerous to mankind as a whole. It wasn't 'good' by any means. Just within tolerance because almost all agrarian empires acted the same way (the Mongols began as nomads, but they soon abandoned those traditions). American settlers annihilated native Americans, for example, and they're still hailed as pioneers.
Hitler on the other hand - vilified.
This is in part because his genocide was not predicated on the simple cost-benefit look at land use, but on ideology.
Additionally, there were long standing codes in war to prohibit mass slaughter where it was not necessary. Because often one could learn from one's enemy, the vast majority of conquests in world history don't have genocides, that and because conquered populations were useful for taxation and labor. Even if you wanted to kill them, you'd have to pretty much completely outclass them, so in nearly every case, it was more efficient to come to terms and make the local population pay tribute rather than force resistance to the death.

This policy was, for lack of a better term, reasonable.
As time went on, the world got more and more socially sophisticated as well as technologically. So the need to destroy huge swaths of population to cause fear and terror was greatly lessened. To the point that in the modern era, thanks to advances in communication and the closeness of urban populations, we have terrorism.

So today, certain forms of oppression and brutality are more glaring and obvious, as are their root causes and the need to oppose them. Because it is obvious that the only way to contain the violence of certain perpetrators of it is to defeat their ideology. Typically there is a need to kill at least some of them.

Which, is many respects, is the difference.

Tamerlane, for example, held Christians, Persians, etc, to be outsiders, and so, outside the bounds of honorable conduct. They could be slaughtered without a thought.
American settles held the same views abut the native Americans. Many Europeans felt the same way about their subhuman chattel.

Killing based on necessity will, eventually, stop. Killing based on a code or some other moral framework won't stop until it is stopped.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in WW2. After the surrender of the Germans and the Japanese - what reason did the allies have to continue fighting? Indeed, the U.S. gave a great deal of help to post-war Japan and to (West) Germany.

If the Axis had won the war, would the killing have ever stopped? I think it is fairly obvious that it would not have. There would always be a new enemy. A new outsider. Or a constant domestic hunt for an old one.
(This is what was/is so dangerous about the GWOT in the U.S)

As horrible as the Mongols were, they were (again, for lack of a better word) reasonable conquerors. Surrender or die. Ok, you could surrender and pay them instead of whomever you were paying before. The Nazis, and other ideological perpetrators of genocide killed you for what you were, or thought or worshiped, etc. regardless of whether you surrendered to their power. So resistance even if it meant death was the only thing that made sense, since you would most certainly die if they got you anyway.

So too, in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), you have organizations which demand resistance (unless you find widespread torture, and arbitrary hangings and beheadings tolerable). And they're growing. The solution is to prevent them from gaining any more power and influence.
As it happens this must be done through the force of arms.
Right now, the Afghan government is incapable of that, as is the Pakistani government, so, as it does affect U.S. interests, the U.S. intervenes.
(the root causes and who to blame aside - and I'll grant there's a lot there that can be hung on U.S. foreign policy in the past).

I'm not going to say we 'must' or 'should' be there. I think being there now could well solve a lot of problems later. But that's predicated on the U.S. doing the right things.

In short - why, is easy. Because it will go on otherwise. And get larger. And more powerful. So it's necessary.
To be clear, I'm not equating necessary with good or right or even what I'd like or hell, even agree with. Plenty of genocides we should get involved with. A lot of organizations that are nasty and dangerous. The fight in the Afghan region though is special because of the location and potential resources that could be brought to bear.

How - whole other thing. It can I'll admit affect the why though.

“Sheer intimidation can be a life-saver, on both sides of the conflict.”

On top of that it helps to goose your logistic security and peak your sustainment so your guys can be more mobile and be at the right place at the right time. This also has the practical upshot of needing less air strikes (as Kadin2048 sed) plus you’re soaking in more to the enemy’s environment and taking it over.

War is a very different thing than it was in WW2. Bushco did the U.S. military a huge disservice executing Iraq the way it did (apart from initiating the entire clusterfuck in the first place I mean).
Plenty of good stuff above on modern counterinsurgency. Only thing I'd add is that nearly all modern warfare from here on out is going to be a counterinsurgency operation first, with other elements being secondary.
For the most part because of the destructive power of modern weaponry and the sophistication of the infrastructure (social and physical), its too costly to destroy and pay to rebuild (whatever KBR, would have us believe), or rather, even if it were cheap to rebuild physically, the social costs are still too high and the labor - the 'tribute' - from the local population is far more sophisticated and ephemeral than loads of grain.
So supplanting the former government isn't just a matter of one naively trying to impose western democracy or some such - but simply a matter of delivering civil services and fostering order and predictability.
Of course, the other side tries to foment chaos and uncertainty while this is going on.
You see this all the time in political affairs, even in the U.S. (especially lately, where it's been more overt and forceful, unfortunately). The difference is there's usually an accompanying bullet festival.

But the very nature of this change, makes war, and the goals of war - and so the definition of winning - a very different thing than it was. Or as it is, still, in many minds.

We can't walk away without winning because we'd leave an unstable, nearly anarchic landscape behind us which would likely fall into a theocratic fascist state that could gain even more influence than it now has in Pakistan.

So, we build schools, aid local governments, create stability, all that. As it is, Obama is the only leader I've seen lately with even the faintest grasp of what modern warfare and counterinsurgency entails. Most of them are stuck in the WWII model of blowing big stuff up or the attrition model from Vietnam.
Makes sense though. As a community organizer this stuff would be intuitive.
And the block by block approach to stability - rather than overt conquest, destruction, or some other God awful approach that's been used in the past - is what can lead to success. That and it's not just us, but a pretty hefty coalition of nations involved.

I won't say victory. Victory in war is as outmoded a concept as bombarding an enemy into submission. Only destroying an opponents strategy, when it is necessary to fight, will lead to a cessation of violence.
Victory, hell, you can have an unending string of those. Never settled a damn thing.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:11 PM on July 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Rory Stweart: The Irresistible Illusion

David Kilcullen: For Answers To The Afghan-Pakistan Conflict, Ask: What Would Curzon Do?
posted by acro at 9:46 AM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Did U.S. forces watch Afghan massacre? Afghan detainees allege that Americans witnessed a mass killing -- a charge the New York Times chose not to report
posted by homunculus at 10:18 AM on July 22, 2009

The Bravest Woman in Afghanistan: An Exclusive Interview With Malalai Joya
posted by homunculus at 5:35 PM on July 27, 2009

Armageddon at the Top of the World: Not! A Century of Frenzy over the North-West Frontier
posted by homunculus at 11:26 AM on July 28, 2009

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