By Elan Journo
Two hundred twenty-two Americans died in Afghanistan in the first nine months of this year--more than in all of last year, the bloodiest year of the war, up till now. After eight years of U.S. military intervention, the fighters of the Islamist movement are not only unbowed, but on the march. The Islamists (often misidentified by one of their favored tactics: terrorism) seek to impose the totalitarian rule of Allah's law worldwide--an ideal that entails smiting down infidels and subjugating others under sharia. And they're making headway. The borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan are the global nerve-center of jihadist operations, where mass-casualty attacks on Western targets are hatched.
From both liberals and conservatives we hear calls for an immediate withdrawal. President Obama, for his part, has dispelled hopes of achieving victory. A common view now holds that we must resign ourselves to a world in which the Islamist menace remains a fixture of our lives--a threat we might mitigate, but never eliminate. Some now tell us we should negotiate a settlement with the Taliban, bribing them to put down their arms, at least for as long as we keep doling out cash. Witness the emerging consensus that there's no military solution--not in Afghanistan, not in the wider conflict with Islamists.
How did America, the world's most powerful nation, find itself in this morass? A shortage of troops and resources? Reliance on a corrupt Afghan regime (a fact highlighted by the charges of massive election fraud, to name a comparatively tame example)? Some combination of these themes? No, the problem goes far deeper. Our post-9/11 policy--in Afghanistan and across the board--was subverted by a factor that few have thought to examine: the basic moral ideas that animate our foreign policy.
My colleagues and I reached this conclusion by looking at how Washington has directed the military and diplomatic response. The evidence (set out in our book) shows that our culture's mainstream ideas about right and wrong are what shaped our leaders' response to 9/11--from their failure properly to identify the enemy and its chief state-sponsors, to their goals for the Iraq and Afghan wars, and on down to the rules of engagement on the battlefield. These ideas have warped the prevailing conception of the "military option." In essence, the kind of war that our leaders believed was morally proper to wage entailed placing "compassion" ahead of the proper task of self-defense.
Take one example. To avoid affronting or injuring Afghans, Washington drew up lengthy "no-strike" lists including cultural sites, electrical plants--a host of legitimate strategic targets ruled untouchable. This handed the enemy a clear advantage--all the more so as the "no-strike" lists have grown longer. The Islamists exploit this policy (e.g., hiding in mosques and situating themselves in known no-strike zones). In response, Washington has misdiagnosed the problem (its own self-effacing rules of engagement) and further hamstrung our soldiers with ever more absurd restrictions. General McChrystal, who oversees Afghanistan operations, recently lambasted U.S. policy for being "preoccupied with protection of our own forces." (!) Instead he urges that they must minimize their time in armored vehicles and walled bases and "share risk, at least equally, with the people."
That's just a sketch of a tragic larger pattern underlying not just the efforts in Afghanistan, but our broader response to 9/11. A point we make in Winning the Unwinnable War is that the way out of the Afghanistan morass requires Americans to recognize how certain (allegedly) moral ideas have informed, and crippled, our policy--and to challenge those ideas.
Elan Journo is a fellow with the Ayn Rand Institute focusing on foreign policy. He is the editor of and chief contributor to Winning the Unwinnable War: America's Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism.