The Worth of Fighting in Afghanistan

When I saw yesterday’s poll indicating that a majority of Americans don’t think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting my mind turned immediately to the fact that I don’t have a yes or no answer to that question. Whether or not something is “worth” doing depends on both how much resources you’re expending, and also on what you’re hoping to accomplish. At the moment, both the objectives of our campaign and the resources we’re willing to expend on it seem to be in flux.

Even in terms of the issue of whether we should be trying to “beat” the Taliban, there’s a kind of basic ambiguity in what that would mean.

This is a map of Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups that abstracts away from the reality that actual populations aren’t homogeneous. The biggest ethnic group is the Pashto. The Taliban is also an overwhelmingly Pashto-based movement. Historically, Afghanistan’s Uzbeks and its small Turkmen community have been very hostile to the Taliban. What’s more, the Hazara are Shiites so they don’t really have any choice but to be anti-Taliban. The Tajiks aren’t necessarily as hostile, but pro-Taliban sentiment is relatively rare among Tajiks, and since the Tajiks are the second-largest group the main leaders of the anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan have generally been Tajik.

All of which is to say that waging war against the Taliban means something quite different in the brown-colored Pashto belt than it does in the rainbow of non-Pashto areas. “Beating the Taliban” could mean something very ambitious like helping the central government in Kabul to essentially reconquer the entire Pashto belt. It could also mean something relatively unambitious like trying to build a central government in Kabul that’s strong enough to prevent the Taliban from overrunning major cities and non-Pashto areas without continuing direct American military involvement. I think it’s plausible to imagine accomplishing that second set of goals with one or two years of continued military presence followed by a longer period of financial assistance. The hope would then be that a well-run government in Kabul ought, over time, to be able to expand its control into more and more of the Pashto countryside but we wouldn’t be defining victory as requiring that. The first set of goals, however, sounds like a decade-long commitment to combat in Afghanistan.


Of course you could look at the whole situation with even more nuance and possible outcomes. But the point is that these two things would be quite different wars, and I don’t really know at this point which one the administration is going to propose committing ourselves to.