Afghanistan: The war that's killing us

Interview: Former Army colonel and current Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich explains why staying is a big mistake
By PETER KADZIS  |  August 2, 2010


WikiLeaks revelations: No match for the Pentagon Papers
The day after the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel published exhaustive reports on how badly the war in Afghanistan is going, based on more than 91,000 secret documents made available by WikiLeaks, Bacevich offered this assessment:

"The leak affirms what we already know. The war is going badly. The basic policy is riddled with contradictions, Pakistan's two-faced behavior providing one example. Comparisons with the Pentagon Papers are misplaced. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned the study that became the Pentagon Papers to answer a question about Vietnam: how did we get into this mess? That question should be asked and answered about Afghanistan as well. The leaked material contributes little in that regard."

For several years now, I've been reading Andrew Bacevich's articles (in magazines as ideologically diverse as the American Conservative and the Nation) and books (The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism) that argue for a reimagination of how American government conceives of and executes foreign policy.

Adopting a pose that would be familiar to the late theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich in effect warns of the dangers of unchecked political pride, which history demonstrates leads to political overreach — the ultimate enemy of any great power.

This sense that a confident modesty should inform public values, especially those applied to a nation's relations with the outside world, is, I think, as refreshing as it is challenging.

The publication of his latest book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, seemed to offer a perfect opportunity to sit down with this Army colonel turned Boston University international-relations professor and discuss what's wrong with the war in Afghanistan.

Born 63 years ago in Normal, Illinois, Bacevich still retains a touch of his flat, Midwestern twang. In conversation he is casually precise — a holdover, perhaps, from his days of command. Bacevich manifests the fluidity that one would expect from a well-regarded professor, but despite his obvious intellectual confidence, his easy manner prompts — invites — engagement.

Complicating the equation that governs Bacevich's make-up is the fact that on May 13, 2007, his 27-year-old son, Andrew Jr., a first lieutenant in the US Army, was killed in action south of Samarra, Iraq.

In Barack Obama's worldview, George Bush's war with Iraq was a mistake, but the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan initially made sense. What's your take?
I don't think it makes any sense at all.

Even from the beginning?
I think the war today makes no sense at all. In 2001, it was necessary to show clearly that any regime providing sanctuary to violent radicals intent on attacking the United States would itself pay a very heavy price. And in that sense, back in 2001, it was necessary to punish the Taliban. It doesn't follow that in 2010 we should still be engaged in a large-scale war with the aim of pacifying the Afghan population. The justification for the war is that since the 9/11 conspiracy was hatched in Afghanistan, anything less than the pacification of Afghanistan will invite another terrorist attack. The radical Islamist threat, which is real but limited, is by no means confined to Afghanistan. Even if we can pacify the place, that provides absolutely no guarantee against the recurrence of something like 9/11.

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Related: Just a reprieve? Unless Republican leaders learn from the past, another Iraq is in our future, Does Obama have the cojones to win?, Has Obama peaked? No, he hasn't, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Afghanistan,  More more >
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