I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

When I originally posted my snotty response to Spencer Ackerman’s civilian casualties post, I had planned on all but ignoring his substantive arguments (which are most obviously phony) and instead focused on his ridiculous characterizations of anyone questioning Afghanistan policy as a whole ("U.S. withdrawal comes with a pony for every Afghan citizen"). But Spencer insisted that I was taking insurgents causing civilian casualties as a given whereas he considers it a more "salient point." He writes:

[...]Some of the most convincing arguments I’ve read against both the war and the prosecution of it have come from people…who start from the premises of war supporters and argue that on their own terms the war doesn’t make sense. That stuff causes me to rethink and adjust…

I’ve written about this before, that those pushing to end the war should most certainly not be accepting the premises of the war makers, and should instead articulate their own specific national interests and the policies to realize them. Provide an alternative, not necessarily a counter. But it also strikes me vaguely as something of a Celestial Teapot, the philosophical exercise wherein the burden of proof is on the person who says something amazing exists (a teapot floating in space) and not on the person who refutes it (there is no teapot).

In our sense, it is the folks arguing that war leads to peace and stability in Afghanistan asking those who say otherwise to try and work backwards from their own twisted arguments, to prove their war wrong. Once you start accepting their premises, about civilian casualties, counter-insurgency doctrine, or whatever it is, then proving your case to actually end the war becomes almost impossible.

Quite frankly, I’m not the one advocating for a decade-plus, trillion dollar occupation of Afghanistan in order to create a "stable security sector", so it’s not really my responsibility to help "adjust" and refine the arguments of anyone who does advocate for it. Rather those pushing for an end to the war are advocating their own policy to achieve their own national interests.

Cutting the trillion dollar war is because we need that money for our broken economy, job creation, and so forth. By withdrawing our military from Afghanistan we are strengthening our national security, removing our troops from an unwinnable quagmire that kills them there and at home, as well as removing the bloody occupation which provides much of the impetus for terrorist attacks and the Taliban insurgency. It’s not simply red teaming the pro-war crowd, it’s an independent political movement.

But in this case, we should take Spencer up on his invitation. Not only will he get what he wants, a discovery that on his own terms the war doesn’t make sense, but it will also help us understand exactly what it is that the United States’ national interests actually are in Afghanistan.

Spencer writes:

Yes, the U.S. deciding to continue to prosecute the war will mean civilians will unfortunately die. Anyone who considers the war to be in the national interest, like myself (with caveats), must carry that recognition as fundamental in the name of basic intellectual honesty. No aspect of that recognition mitigates the U.S.’s obligation to minimize civilian casualties with all due effort.[...]

Here’s where those who base their opposition to the war its promotion of human suffering have to meet halfway as well. If the U.S. stops prosecuting its end of the war, civilian casualties will not end. What will end is the civilian casualties we directly cause.

It’s good that he’s reaching for "intellectual honesty," but he only goes halfway. If one must recognize that the civilian casualties caused by our war are fundamental, then you also have to accept that civilian casualties caused by the Taliban are equally fundamental. The Taliban aren’t any less at war than ISAF or Afghan security forces. If we are at war with the Taliban, the Taliban are at war with us. Just as we take steps to "minimize" civilian casualties, so too does the Taliban. War is a two-way street, it’s not just us fighting in a vacuum.

It follows then that by ending the US war with the Taliban, we will drop the civilian casualties that are so fundamental to that war. But he’s right that civilian casualties caused by the Taliban won’t end when the US leaves. Why is that? Put simply, it’s because we’re not the only war going on.

Afghanistan is in the midst of a civil war, part of a cycle of civil wars going back almost a century. It’s difficult to define the precise nature of each civil war, of course, but the specifics aren’t really a concern here. What we have to ask ourselves is whether or not the US should be engaged in a civil war in Afghanistan, or if we should be exploring other options.

To answer that question, we have to understand exactly what our national interests in Afghanistan are. Spencer defines his interests as follows [emphasis mine]:

But if the choice is to restrict al-Qaeda’s freedom of movement while combatting the strategic-depth network in Afghanistan; divesting ourselves of the responsibilities to secure Afghanistan; and bolstering the capabilities of our Afghan and Pakistani security-sector and governance-sector allies; then we’re getting somewhere. And these things are related: al-Qaeda would not be relying on the scrubs on the bench like Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad if they were not feeling pressure.

And this is why, ultimately, I do think the strategy in Afghanistan/Pakistan makes sense. It’s a near-optimal balance of risks and benefits within the boundaries of a finite commitment. That is: the surge represents the best chance of rolling back years of Taliban advances in Afghanistan while giving the Afghan government a chance to actually govern and building a durable security sector, so that after July 2011, the Taliban is just less relevant to people’s lives — and, across the border, supporting and encouraging the Pakistani military to perform similar operations to restrict the space in which al-Qaeda and its strategic-depth groups operate. You move on that front by July 2011, and you can divest the direct-security commitment to Afghanistan pretty responsibly, and de-escalate the war accordingly, with a smaller contingent of U.S., Afghan and Pakistani forces that you’ll rely upon to essentially contain al-Qaeda forces in the border regions and Waziristan while they grow less relevant. And frankly, if you can’t do it in that time, you’ll have to deescalate anyway, because this sort of fighting and this sort of commitment is not sustainable.

So, let’s break that down one by one.

  • Restrict Al-Qa’eda freedom of movement / Contain Al-Qa’eda in Waziristan – What role does freedom of movement play in Al-Qa’eda’s ability to recruit, train, and carry out attacks against US targets? So far, its role is negligible. Using Spencer’s example of Faisal Shahzad, he was able to make contact with terrorists via the Internet and then fly to Pakistan’s tribal regions, wherein Spencer believes they can be "contained." I see a number of reasons here why Al-Qa’eda’s militant ideology must be countered and suppressed, and why the US must reform its counter-terrorism (travel security specifically) measures, but it’s not readily obvious how confining only a few members of that ideology in Waziristan (Al-Qa’eda is much bigger than Afghanistan and Pakistan) will accomplish anything. I’m not sure that even "naive" is a strong enough description for the belief that simply isolating a few people in the tribal regions will cause them to magically "grow less relevant." Not only does it misunderstand what helps make the extremists relevant in the first place (US aggression), but also shows a lack of basic understanding about how these groups operate (Hint: they are aware of the Internet as well as airplanes).
  • Combating the strategic depth network in Afghanistan – No other way to put it, this is getting involved in Afghanistan’s civil war. The strategic depth network, as we’ve discussed previously, is part of Pakistan’s national security strategy, a proxy war against Indian and other interests in Afghanistan. If you want to go to Afghanistan and then fight those proxies, what you are saying is that you want to fight in (at least one of) Afghanistan’s civil wars (among them are Pakistan vs India, Local vs Central Gov’t, Ethnic and sectarian conflict, etc). Pressuring the Pakistani government to minimize or even abandon those networks would help reduce their threat to the United States, but that’s completely different from advocating that the US should have an army in Afghanistan to fight the networks.
  • Divesting responsibility to secure Afghanistan – What is our responsibility to secure Afghanistan? Hamid Karzai has a responsibility to secure Afghanistan. So does the Taliban, which is, by the way, what they think they’re doing (they have said many times that their objective is to liberate Afghanistan from the Western occupation). But we are not Afghans, we don’t have a responsibility to secure Afghanistan. To the extent that we’re there occupying it now, we have a responsibility to leave, which will "secure" Afghanistan in that it’s no longer being occupied by foreign powers. There is no responsibility to secure Afghanistan with the US military though, certainly objectively speaking, but even more so in the sense of American national (read: selfish) interests.
  • Bolstering the capabilities of our Afghan and Pakistani governance-sector allies – No controversy here, I’ve been very vocal about our need to engage and empower the legitimate government-sector allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But if we’re talking about governance, that’s different from 100,000 US military troops in Afghanistan. How do special forces night raids further reform the judicial and legislative institutions in Afghanistan? How does bribing the Pakistani military to bomb Waziristan lessen the corruption in the Zardari/Gillani administration? I agree that governance in Pakistan and Afghanistan is important, but to say that the military occupation accomplishes that is another of our celestial teapots. You tell me why an insurgent-enabling foreign occupation is a good idea for developing stable governance, I think the reasons why it’s not are fairly self-evident.
  • Rolling back years of Taliban advances – I don’t like the Taliban. I’ve referred to them alternately as "monsters", "fascists", and "illiterate hill people." They’re awful, evil people. But, as above, that doesn’t translate to the US having a national interest in fighting a civil war against them on behalf of the Afghan government. If the Taliban wins the civil war, so be it, they’re Afghans, too. National interests are selfish interests, and nothing the US hopes to gain from Afghanistan is contingent on their specific leadership. To wit, a US diplomat once told Ahmed Rashid, “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.” Assuming the US is able to reform its counter-terrorism and security measures (See above on restricting Al-Qa’eda movement), I see little reason why our calculation of national interests in 2010 should be any different ("Be more Israeli," right Spencer?). Of course there is always a concern for the protection of human rights, but our occupation definitely doesn’t have anything to do with that (one word: Bagram). And as we’ll see below, there are other ways to protect besides military intervention.
  • Giving the Afghan government a chance to govern – What about our military occupation gives them this chance? If all it took was US troops, the Afghan government has had that chance since 2002. If we go by the oppressive laws and stolen elections, one might even say that the Afghan government has had too much of a chance. What’s more, Afghanistan’s government is corrupt and illegitimate, but it is also broken at the constitutional level. It creates bizarre incentives to engage in both tyranny and graft, and it definitely needs reform. By removing the foreign backing of the corrupt central government, you take away not only a reason for the Taliban to reject it, but also the space for real democratic reformers within the central government to work. Continuing our occupation gives them less of a chance to govern, not more.
  • Building a durable security sector – The central government in Kabul doesn’t actually have the money for the (corrupt, useless) security sector it has now, it’s all paid for by US taxpayers. That means a "durable security sector" is an extremely expensive, long-term commitment to back Kabul in its civil war against the Taliban. And as I said above, the US doesn’t have any responsibility to secure Afghanistan, nor do we have the financial freedom to make such a commitment.
  • Supporting the Pakistani military / Pakistani security-sector alliesBad idea. Bad idea. Bad idea. The US can engage with and enable the democratically elected civilian government of Pakistan, and whatever choice that government makes about its counterinsurgency policies is their prerogative. General Kayani is not elected, and the US has no right undermining the legitimately representative government (no matter how corrupt it is).

When you put it all together, you get a confusing mish-mash of everything from neo-liberalism (obligation to reduce civilian casualties), naked imperialism (we must secure Afghanistan to secure ourselves), to state sponsorship of terrorism (support the Pakistani military). Or more succinctly, you get the US war in Afghanistan. To top if off, Spencer helpfully points out that the strategy for realizing those national interests, that is continuing the bloody and expensive military involvement in Afghanistan’s civil war, is to put it lightly, "not sustainable." That strategy costs a trillion dollars (and rising). Thousands of US soldiers have to die for it, countless thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis as well. It takes at least a decade, longer if you let them. You bet your ass it’s not sustainable.

Now let’s compare that strategy, and national interests, to those who are working to end the war. Since, as Ackerman pointed out, it’s impossible to separate the national security strategies from politics in a democracy, we’ll use Elaine Marshall, a politician who opposes the war, as our example. A politician’s position on any given issue is usually a reflection of the constituents and support groups who keep them in office (rarely, if ever, is it ideological), and so in this sense, Marshall’s candidacy provides a focal point of US national interests in Afghanistan; the interests of ordinary Americans (North Carolinians in this case), activist groups (ActBlue), as well as the political means to carry out those interests (Marshall herself).

Marshall’s website lists her national security interests as follows:

The number one priority of our national security policy should be to keep Americans safe here at home. We are currently bogged down in two wars that are draining our resources and keeping American troops at risk. Meanwhile, our most recent terrorist threat, the failed Christmas Day bomber, came from neither of those countries. We need to closely examine our national security priorities.

Build international cooperation — I applaud President Obama’s move to strengthen the United States by working as a partner in the international community rather than continue the go-it-nearly-alone policies of the Bush Administration. We operate from a position of strength when we have support from the international community, whether we are chasing terrorists or trying to influence non-cooperative states like Iran or North Korea.

Secure our borders and ports —We need to improve screening and coordination between government agencies to identify and prevent terrorists from entering the country.  We also need to beef up port security to better screen containers and cargo. As the Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol states, our borders should be the last line of security, not the first.

Avoid long term entanglements in failed states —The terrorists that are threatening our country today hold no allegiance to any nation. They thrive in unstable political environments where they can operate uninterrupted by dysfunctional governments. We need to resist the temptation to fix these struggling states. Instead, we should focus our military action on disrupting terrorist activity and capturing or killing terrorists wherever they operate.  Addressing the needs of dysfunctional states should be the role of the entire international community and the burden should not fall disproportionately on the United States.

Note right away that this is radically different from how the peace movement is normally portrayed. Ackerman himself referred to them as "hippies," but it’s that other H-word we have to refer to someone who believes in "killing terrorists wherever they operate," Hawk, that would be more accurate. That may not be the most appetizing policy for Marshall’s activist supporters of course, but her priority is not satisfying those interest groups. It is serving her constituents, who are presumably much more hawkish than your average progressive organization, that takes precedence when setting the policy of a Senate candidate like Marshall.

The clarity in national interests is also readily apparent. There is no hand-wringing over simply reducing civilian casualties, whether by us or insurgents, no gobbledygook about durable security-sector partners and divesting responsibilities. It is a precise declarative of US national security interests, always a byword for selfish interests, and being "bogged down in two wars that are draining our resources" is definitely not one of those interests.

Marshall is not suggesting abandoning Afghanistan or even a complete end to militarist counter-terrorism, she is instead advocating to "focus our military action" on "capturing and killing terrorists wherever they operate" (military actions presumably modeled on present US engagements in Yemen, Somalia, or even Costa Rica). Again, I don’t like this option, it’s barely legal (and not in the fun way), not to mention its recruiting value to radical organizations. But it is simply a policy that many Americans, including politicians like Elaine Marshall – and Vice President Biden, are putting forward as an alternative to endless war in Afghanistan (and possibly Pakistan).

Development, to include bolstering governance, protecting human rights, and strengthening infrastructure, is similarly handled with efficiency. Marshall advises that we "resist the temptation to fix" conflict countries like Afghanistan (such as with counter-insurgency, militarized nation building, etc) and should instead leave that responsibility to the "entire international community," of which, last I checked, the United States is still a member. That means that rather than showering the country with totally unaccountable taxpayer dollars (and weaponry), we instead work through the normal channels we use for every other dysfunctional state, such as various State Department contracting agencies, NGO’s, or the United Nations. You can accomplish a lot with just food, to name only one option. Military occupation doesn’t even need to be on the table.

The capabilities of terrorist organizations are also more realistically dealt with here, relying on port and border security (passenger/cargo screening as an example). And while it’s true that you most often see border security proposals done as pandering to particularly xenophobic constituencies, Marshall herself has extensive experience in international law (trade negotiations, illicit financing, etc) so we can reasonably assume that her border security policies will be slightly more sophisticated than "build the dang fence" or hauling Muslims out of line at the airport. Or y’know, "restricting Al-Qa’eda movement" in Waziristan (whatever the heck that would accomplish).

But most importantly we should recognize that this is not starting from the premises of the war makers and then working backwards, it is an independent assessment of the facts and the policy to match that analysis. Those who question the war are reading the same set of facts as the pro-war crowd, they know about the cost, the death toll, the Gordian Knot that is Central Asia. When they’re seeing this information, at no point do they think "Man, this is definitely the right thing to do. I bet it’ll all work out just fine." And yet, somewhere in the back of their minds, that’s what happening to the folks who support the war (even if it isn’t particularly conscious).

We’re not worried about playing with the pro-war folks’ navel gazing because, I’m not sorry to say, that’s entirely pointless. We have put forth our own national interests, our own strategies and policies, our own political representatives. The majority of the American people support this, and we are winning.

And that brings us back to why I originally responded to Ackerman in the manner that I did, focusing only on his insults toward the anti-war community. Not only does it betray an ignorance and insensitivity totally out of character for Spencer, but it is also proving detrimental to both political and national security analysis. One can’t endlessly parse Afghans into ethnic identities, tribal power structures, irreconcilable radicals and so forth, and then turn around and blow off a massive American political movement as hippies, or the angry far left, or whatever the dumb smear is this week. You are missing something.

The Democratic party laughed off the Netroots – until they started losing elections. They did the same thing with the Tea Parties – until they lost Ted Kennedy’s seat. And very soon they are going to see it from the anti-war movement. Maybe that will happen before they lose their jobs in November, whether as an outright loss or torpedoed in favor of a Republican, and maybe it won’t. War supporters don’t need to "rethink and adjust" their arguments, they need to adjust their policies. Wake up, and fast, to the fact that they are extremely vulnerable on this issue.

We are going to end this war, sooner rather than later, and the quicker that this is recognized, the easier it will be for war supporters to back off their ridiculous positions. Many in the anti-war crowd are willing to compromise on over-the-horizon military strikes, as with Elaine Marshall, as well as immediate withdrawal. Some would be satisfied with the President’s July 2011 deadline (although there is every reason to speed that up), provided that war makers are compelled to seal that into law (such as a binding timetable from Congress). Hell, the whole rest of the international community is planning for our withdrawal, why not get a head start along with them?

If you want a lighter footprint or so-called "Counter-Terrorism Plus" in Afghanistan, start negotiating now before we de-fund the entire enterprise. If you think getting the current supplemental funding through congress is hard, just wait for this escalation to drag on into a few more deadly months like June’s. Our numbers are growing, yours are shrinking.

So no, we don’t need to meet Spencer Ackerman, or anyone else, halfway when it comes to civilian casualties, the Taliban, or whatever it is they want to talk about. It is they who must meet us halfway. We have the momentum, and if Afghanistan is any indication, the war makers aren’t very good at breaking that.

Want to help end the war? Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page, and be sure to check out the Meetups in your area.