Things have gone better than expected (certainly better than I expected) in Iraq over the past year. On the other hand, things are going very badly in Afghanistan. For those, like me (and most at CT I think), who have supported the war in Afghanistan and opposed the war in Iraq, this raises some points to consider.
Most obviously, war is inherently unpredictable and dangerous, and there is no necessary correlation between the justness of a cause and its military success. That means, among other things, that launching a war (or revolution) on the basis of a cause that seems justified to those starting it, but which has little or no hope of success (indeed without strong grounds for expecting a good outcome after the inevitable loss of life on all sides is taken into account), is not glorious but criminally reckless.
Sadly, the typical ‘war of choice’ is launched on the basis of hubristic expectations of success, an illusion which is often bolstered by initial success but usually ends in disaster (I expect this will turn out to be the case for both/all sides in the Georgia conflict).
Supporters of the decision to go to war in Afghanistan can argue that the prospects of success were excellent and would have been realised if it were not for the massive incompetence of the Bush Administration, most obviously in deciding to launch a second war in Iraq for no particular reason (or, if you prefer, for many contradictory reasons). Of course, some supporters of the Iraq war make precisely the same claim. But the Administration’s incompetence was much more evident in 2003 than in 2001, one reason why I and others changed our views. More importantly, Afghanistan was not a war of choice. The US and other countries had been attacked by terrorists operating there with the support of the Taleban, and further attacks were planned. It’s hard to see what alternatives were available.
Perhaps with more competent management the Taleban could have been defeated by now, and Al Qaeda put out of business in the region. But they haven’t been and it is time to admit that a military victory over the Taleban insurgency is now unlikely whether or not it might have been achieved in the past. As with the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, it’s time to look harder at offering both a part in the political process and plenty of cash to those willing to abandon the insurgency.
fn1. That doesn’t mean the situation is good by any normal standard. Omagh-scale bomb attacks still take place every week or so, attracting barely any notice, and both soldiers and civilians are dying every day. More importantly, even if the war ended tomorrow, it would still be a disaster for all concerned. The US has suffered thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of soldiers wounded and spent trillions of dollars while making its own international position far weaker than before. And the suffering of the Iraqi people has been far greater – hundreds of thousands dead, millions forced to flee the country, an economy in ruins and a legacy of bitter division that is unlikely to heal for decades to come.