October 27, 2009
The Stakes in Afghanistan
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

The war in Afghanistan and our continued commitment to that battle raises any number of moral issues. These were recently addressed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a letter sent to the United States government's National Security Advisor General James L. Jones USMC (Ret.).  Of course, America's military engagement of the Taliban has roots in the 9/11 attacks.  Most observers find the U.S. at a critical juncture, and are anxiously waiting for President Obama to make a decision on tactical and strategic options while popular support for the war languishes at home.

Bret Stephens writes the Wall Street Journal's "Global View" column. In his September 7 column, Stephens explained why the consequences of an American failure in Afghanistan would be catastrophic for western civilization. "Afghanistan," he wrote, "matters not because that's where 9/11 was conceived. It matters because that's where it was imagined."  It was imagined because prior to the U.S. occupation, the Mujahedeen had already -- in their jihadist conception of things -- defeated one of the great super powers, Russia. "Imagine," invites Stephens, "the sorts of notions that would take root in the minds of jihadists -- and the possibilities that would open up to them -- if the U.S. was to withdraw from Afghanistan in its own turn."

I last interviewed Bret a little over a year ago on the seventh anniversary of 9/11, and was grateful for the recent opportunity to engage him further on the issue of Afghanistan. Here's what he had to say.

Berg: How did the Taliban manage to rearm themselves after 9/11 with American and coalition forces fighting them on their own terrain?

Stephens: The Taliban were a relatively weak force until 2006, when they started cutting deals with the Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf and gaining the sanctuary in Pakistan necessary to sustain their campaigns in Afghanistan. Those noxious habits of deal-making culminated with the Taliban's takeover this spring of the Swat Valley, from which they have only recently been bloodily evicted. Factors within Afghanistan clearly haven't helped. There is, of course, the money that comes from poppies, opium and heroin; there is the dysfunction and corruption of the Afghan government, there is the failure to train and supply an Afghan army and police force of adequate size, and the problem of NATO itself, in which different countries operate under different rules of engagement and don't necessarily contribute much (if anything) to the overall mission. Still, it is a mistake to overstate the strength of the Taliban, or the weakness of our position in Afghanistan. The Taliban are feared but widely detested by Afghans. They are present only in a portion of the country (the so-called Pashtun belt straddling the old Durand Line). Our own casualty rates remain a fraction of what they were in Iraq. We have a proven and recent record of successful counterinsurgency. If this war is going to be lost, it'll be in Washington, not Kabul or Kandahar.

Berg:  Does the memory of the Russian quagmire and withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 80's raise legitimate fears of the same thing happening now to the U.S.?

Stephens: The conditions were very different. The Taliban isn't fielding Stinger missiles supplied by a friendly superpower. The Afghans are mainly with us, if doubtful of our staying power. The U.S. has core strategic interests in Afghanistan, sustained (albeit in a weakening way) by the memory of 9/11. For all our economic trouble, our economy's ability to sustain war is infinitely greater than the Soviet's was. Afghanistan broke the Russian army. By contrast, the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq have in many ways improved the quality of ours, not least by giving a generation of officers and senior enlisted men invaluable combat and counterinsurgency experience. 

Berg:  Is the Afghan war winnable? At what price?

Stephens:  Of course it's winnable. The price is sustained commitment over many years, with casualties that will be real and heartbreaking but, by any historical measure, relatively trivial. But the war is not winnable if the Taliban sense the U.S. is looking for the exit signs. There is a saying common among Taliban fighters: "The Americans have the watches, but we have the time." I hope President Obama proves them wrong. 

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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