You had to at least admire the candor in opinion piece that Richard Cohen wrote for the Washington Post this week, starting with the title: "Eight Years Later and Still No Revenge." Revenge at least makes sense as a rationale for the Afghanistan war, and not much else does. But it is not a rationale worthy of those killed in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. on that terrible day eight years ago.
The extraordinary nature of the way in which those nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on that infamous day left the US with little immediate understanding of what an appropriate response would be. It took a bit of time to even figure out who was responsible and when the perpetrator did emerge, not in the form of a hostile nation, but a small and little known non-governmental organization known as Al Qaeda, led by one equally obscure Osama bin Laden, the appropriate response was still not immediately clear. Eventually the Bush Administration would launch two separate wars in an ostensible effort to annihilate the group.
Today virtually no one still takes the Bush Administration's initial claims as a serious rationale for the invasion of Iraq, although 130,000 American troops (along with a roughly equal number of "defense contractors") abide in that country, their withdrawal always seemingly just around the corner. Afghanistan is another matter, though. Although the pollsters tell us that most Americans have now turned against that war and that a serious majority oppose increasing the force already there, a lingering belief remains that in this case there must be some method behind the madness.
But is there really? Is there any evidence that our government is actually pursuing any realistic goal in Afghanistan? Does the White House really expect to defeat the Taliban militarily, even as the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) concludes, nearly eight years after the US drove the Taliban from Kabul, that, "Despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan, [there will be 68,000 from the US by the end of the year, an equal number of military contractors, and 38,000 troops from other NATO countries] the return, the spread and the advance of the Taliban is now without question"? And with the ICOS finding the Taliban having "a permanent presence in 80% of Afghanistan," compared with 54% less than two years ago, does our government think it's successfully going about the business of somehow turning the Afghanis to embrace some less militant form of Islam? Does it think that our bombing campaigns will convince them that the invading forces are motivated by concern with their well being?
This war's rationale is actually so murky that we don't even get a straight story as to whom our troops have been sent to fight: the Taliban, the organization that is obviously carrying the fight in reality, or Al Qaeda, whose presence in the mountains served as the war's original justification. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) is typical of the war's supporters in arguing that "What the president has to do is continually point to the fact that Al Qaeda is operating in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan." And yet just last May General David Petraeus told us that Al Qaeda was no longer operating in Afghanistan. How could the organization be so mobile or elusive? The answer may lie in the fact that its membership is thought to number only in the low hundreds, suggesting that while it may pose a threat of continued terrorist activity, its nature is not such as to justify the deployment of a hundred thousand troops half way around the globe to combat it.
The real motiving force behind American Afghanistan policy? A delusional world view under Bush and the fear of being perceived as "soft" on foreign policy under Obama? Or revenge, as a typical Afghani might more likely see it? Whichever it is, two things seem certain. None of the great thinkers supporting this war policy have any realistic idea of how it ends. And as long as it doesn't, we'll be hearing a steady stream of stories of civilian deaths like those that just occurred in the NATO bombing of the hijacked fuel trucks in Kunduz.
Nothing we do can bring back the innocent victims of September 11, but the idea of continuing this war in their name is not a tribute to them; it's an insult. The appropriate way to honor them would be to break the cycle of retribution that Washington apparently intends to continue indefinitely and see to it that not another innocent civilian dies in their name.