State-Building in Afghanistan to What End?


Marc Lynch is asking good questions about what we’re trying to do in Afghanistan:

Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasas, into Africa — into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget? To his credit, McChrystal adviser Steve Biddle raises all of these questions in his excellent American Interest article from last month — but in my view goes wrong by limiting the policy options to either full withdrawal or full commitment to COIN.

I think this is right on. You sometimes hear things said about Afghanistan that appear to imply that the safety of the United States of America requires us to secure effective physical control over 100 percent of the land area on earth. After all, anyplace that’s not perpetually under the control of the U.S. military or an allied military “could” become a “safe haven” for terrorists. This is when you need to reach for your modus tollens and conclude that the strategic objectives are being framed poorly. The United States cannot secure effective physical control over 100 percent of the land area on earth and no country on earth has ever done this. Any reasonable definition of national security just can’t lead to this conclusion.

A crucial issue related to this is that people always seem to forget that the 9/11 plot was substantially hatched in Germany. The train station bombings in London and Madrid didn’t have anything to do with Afghanistan or Pakistan. There’s no reason to think that constructing an effective terror plot requires control over an expansive geographic region. And by definition, to carry out an act of anti-western terrorism you need to be in the West. You can’t hijack a civilian jetliner in the Hindu Kush and you can’t blow up a European train station from Mogadishu.