To fight or not to fight in Afghanistan

I generally oppose war. Most wars are unnecessary and counterproductive. They not only kill, maim, create refugees and destroy families, but they often lay the seeds of future wars and create a fragile, dangerous peace. If you go to the movies, violence often seems decisive. Bam they’re dead. But real life isn’t so simple. World War I created the seeds of World War II. Historic conflicts in the area that was Yugoslavia created the seeds of the horror of ethnic cleansing and civil war. Each middle eastern skirmish and war has created the seeds for another. Wars tend to settle a lot less than the fighters imagine.

But I’m also a realist. I understand that some wars have to be fought. World War II was not a choice. And simply expressing unwillingness to fight allows others to reshape the world. So a description of America’s defense perimeter in January 1950 that did not include Korea emboldened North Korea to attack. Sometimes the hawks are right.

But sometimes they’re full of it. Iraq was a choice and we now know it was the wrong choice. There is a strong argument that the war in Afghanistan was necessary. But the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan were poorly planned, resourced and staffed from the beginning.

Mistakes made in those early days still haunt us in both places. When our troops first rolled in, there was a possibility of resolving those conflicts in relatively constructive ways. In the early days of the war, a relatively open Iranian president sought rapprochement with the U.S. In a way that illustrates the possible gains of war – Iran saw the U.S. fighting in countries on both Iran’s eastern and western borders. A sense of realism led Iran to think rapprochement with the U.S. had a lot of benefits. But the warriors in America scoffed at the very opportunity they had created. It’s not surprising, in a way. If you think war is the answer, you are likely to miss the opportunities for peace, and the risks of continuing to fight.

After years of warfare, the enemy in Afghanistan has gotten stronger, and the willingness of the population to help us has declined – partly because they have seen people who cooperate with us murdered by the Taliban when we left to fight somewhere else. If we leave now, we will have strengthened the very people who pose the greatest danger to America.

In other words, the choices that President Bush had are no longer available to President Obama. What’s left is a difficult and painful set of options. If Obama decides to fight, fund and staff this war, most of us will simply not have the tools to evaluate that decision. I own some peace signs but I won’t stick them on my lawn. My heart will be heavy. But this time there isn’t a clear answer.

Though I continue to believe that stronger American leadership in the Middle East could resolve some of the conflicts and create a peace that would make the Taliban and al Qaeda a historical irrelevance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 20, 2009.

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