The Bin Laden Strategy


I was glad to see the president gesture in the direction of cost-benefit analysis being relevant to considering our approach to Afghanistan, but the reality is that though he raised the issue I don’t think he did much to answer it. This is especially problematic because, as Radley Balko points out, goading the United States into wasting resources in Afghanistan is more-or-less the best plan Osama bin Laden was able to come up with for how a tiny group of poorly armed individuals can damage the mightiest empire the world has ever known:

In his thorough history of 9/11 The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright makes a pretty persuasive case that Osama bin Laden’s goal in planning out terrorist attacks throughout the 1990s was to suck the U.S. into a Soviet-style war in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had no delusions about turning the U.S. into a Muslim country. Instead, he wanted to pull America into an expensive, dispiriting, unwinnable war—the sort of war nearly every power that has invaded Afghanistan has had to extract itself from, tail between legs. Wright writes that bin Laden was initially dispirited at the ease with which U.S. forces removed the Taliban from power.

The good news is that the United States is a lot richer and more powerful than the Soviet Union was, and the Taliban’s backers are a lot poorer and weaker than the mujahedeen’s backers were. So at the end of the day, actually bleeding us into submission isn’t going to work. Even in our weakened post-Bush, post-Iraq, post-recession state we can afford to be sloppy with our allocation of resources. But that doesn’t make it a good idea. As Matt Duss pointed out yesterday, that’s why one of the strengths of the administration’s approach to Afghanistan is its determination to avoid a purely open-ended engagement. The precise nature of that commitment is, however, pretty vague and they’re under pressure from the right to move in the most open-ended direction possible. It’s important to resist that impulse and keep America’s interests in Afghanistan in perspective relative to our many other interests at home and around the world.