Why Are We in Afghanistan?

"Now there's folks in Washington that care what's on our minds."
--Folksinger Ani DiFranco in a new verse added to the old union song "Which Side Are You On?"

"We meet today as three sovereign nations joined by a common goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda."

--Barack Obama, President of the United States

"We demand an end to these operations ... an end to air strikes."

--Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan

Why are we in Afghanistan? That is, why are we still in Afghanistan, seven years on? There's no simple answer, but one factor could be that those who feel that the new folks in Washington care about what's on their minds are themselves not paying very close attention to what's going on there. Otherwise, how do we explain so little public outcry about a war in which the number of civilians killed may have surpassed the total membership of the principal enemy?

There are no hard figures on Al Qaeda's membership, clearly due not to want of effort on the part of western intelligence agencies but to the organization's conspiratorial nature. In an article published in Slate earlier this year, Timothy Noah wrote that "intelligence estimates suggest al-Qaida's (sic) current membership may be as low as 200 or 300," a remarkably low number, but within the range of mainstream opinion. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that "estimates range from several hundred to several thousand members."

(The organization known alternately as Al Qaeda Iraq or Al Qaeda Mesopotamia, which sprang up in Iraq following the American invasion of that country, is estimated to have anywhere from under a thousand to five thousand members. Obviously they are not the target of military activities in Afghanistan.)

The number of civilian casualties is uncertain as well, but in this case the vagueness is due to lack of effort, this being quite an uncomfortable topic for both the Afghan and American governments. But organizations like the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan have devoted considerable attention to the question and estimates based upon their work suggest total civilian casualties in the 7,000 to 10,000 range. Professor Marc W. Herold of the University of New Hampshire has also made a close study of civilian casualties resulting specifically from US military actions and concludes that somewhere from 5,000 to 7,000 Afghani civilians were killed by them alone.

The nature of these figures clearly renders definite conclusions impossible, but has there ever before been a war in which it was even a close question as to whether civilian casualties might actually exceed the total number of the enemy?

How could a war like this continue for so long? Well, as President Obama went on to say at his recent meeting with Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the US is fighting not just Al Qaeda, but also "its extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan," foremost among them the Taliban whose fundamentalist government the US overthrew seven years ago.

The Taliban, of course, differ from Al Qaeda in many respects. Among the more significant are the fact that they clearly have more than a few hundred supporters; that, distasteful as they are, they did not organize the 2001 attacks on the US; and that the US government did not find them beyond the pale when they were deemed useful allies against the Soviet Union. And after seven years of fighting them, the US finds itself engaged in a course of continuing aerial bombardment of Afghanistan in the face of objections by that country's president while also launching drone missle attacks upon Pakistan which that country's president characterizes as "violations of our sovereignty" that he "cannot condone."

So with the US blatantly contravening the wishes of its ostensible allies, why the continued silence on the home front? Well, when Ani DiFranco sang the new verse cited above to the crowd gathered at Madison Square Garden to celebrate Pete Seeger's 90th birthday, it said a great deal about the depth of support Obama currently enjoys on the left. For DiFranco is, you see, nobody's idea of a wishy washy liberal. In the past, where another performer might explain that she opposed the war in Iraq but "supported our boys," DiFranco was known to announce to her audience "I don't support our troops in Iraq." She simply didn't think they belonged there and wasn't about to dilute that point.

For sure, there are lots of people on the left side of the political spectrum feeling a whole lot better lately. And after eight years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who can blame them? But with a hundred days of good feeling under our belts, it seems time to be giving those new folks in Washington a clearer idea of what's on our minds about America's "other war" - that is, if there is actually a clear idea there.

Certainly many of those who might normally object to a foreign policy that utilizes air strikes where police activity is in order are constrained by their faith in the new occupant of the White House. But might it also be the case that Americans are exercising a perverse variation on the precautionary principle? Since we can't be sure that the war in Afghanistan is not deterring terrorism, it's best not to oppose it.

A recent extreme example of that type of thinking was operative in the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. Why did Serbs, Croats, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and Bosnian Muslims continue to support leaders engaging in activities the rest of the world viewed as war crimes? Simply because each of those groups saw those leaders as acting in their defense - which they were. They might have been war criminals, but they were "our" war criminals who at least did not intend to kill "us," as "their" war criminals clearly did. And as the wars and the atrocities rolled on, so did the list of justifications for this attitude.

Given the disrepute into which Serbia, in particular, fell during the course of those wars, this is a seriously unflattering comparison. But then it is always easier to see the foibles of others. If we want to be certain that the comparison is not apt, then each of us ought to have a clear answer as to why we are still in Afghanistan - especially those of us who feel that the new folks in Washington really do care about what's on our minds.

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