Does the U.S. Have A Moral Duty to Fix Afghanistan (or anywhere else)?

BY Glen Tschirgi
2 years, 5 months ago

In an article for National Review Online, Patrick Brennan illuminates the thinking of General David McKiernan, commander of ISAF in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009.

To the extent that Brennan accurately reflects McKiernan’s thinking and, more importantly, that McKiernan is at all representative of widely-held views in the U.S. military,  it goes a long way to explaining the seeming paralysis of U.S. force projection in Afghanistan and globally.

Fundamentally, Gen. McKiernan is a true believer in what seems to be called the Pottery Barn Rule of U.S. power projection:

In my conversation with him in his Boston office, General McKiernan demonstrates a vast knowledge of the problems of Afghanistan, as well as a keen concern for the fate of the country and NATO’s mission there. “In my experience with many different operations in the military over the years, when you intervene on the ground in a country, ‘breaking the china’ in that country and changing the regional status quo, you then own the problem,” he says. The U.S. is therefore obligated, at the very least, to live up to the commitments it has made to Afghanistan’s civil and military leaders, including fulfilling the new strategic partnership by allocating sufficient funds, which will become a year-to-year concern. A military intervention such as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 inevitably means the obliteration of a country’s existing political order, as chaotic or oppressive as that might be. Without a continuing commitment to restore some semblance of order and stability to Afghanistan, McKiernan argues, we will fail in our moral duty and abandon our strategic interests.

At the conclusion of the article, Brennan sums up Gen. McKiernan’s thinking:

The U.S. was right to invade Afghanistan in order to exact revenge against al-Qaeda and eliminate the region’s terrorist havens. But McKiernan has seen the catastrophic side effects of that invasion, and they represent something of a geopolitical sin. With a more targeted, locally nuanced, and efficient strategy as penance, the United States can help the Afghan government construct and enforce some degree of order, General McKiernan believes. If we do not do so, we abandon our moral commitment to repair Afghanistan, and we will leave a gapingly insecure region that would remain fertile ground for international terrorism.

Pardon the gag reflex.  There is much else in the article that is deserving of comment and it is worth reading.  For example, Gen. McKiernan seems to recognize that Afghanistan is not a nation state in any true sense of the word but is, instead, a collection of different tribes, ethnicities and sects.   His takeaway from this fact, however, is to double down on the formation and training of a national army and police force that can someday, somehow hold the centrifugal differences of the country together.   As illogical as this seems, it is necessitated by the “you break it, you own it” philosophy embraced by McKiernan and others.

So this seems to me to be the fundamental debate for American foreign policy, not only for Afghanistan but for the next ten to twenty years as we face no lack of failing or failed states that become incubators for Militant Islam: what, if any, obligation does the U.S. have to another country or people when the U.S. uses military force in exercise of its national interests?

First let’s clarify some of General McKiernan’s muddled thinking.

According to his moral universe, when a nation “breaks the china” by intervening with force of arms to somehow change the status quo of another nation or region then the intervenor “own[s] the problem” and incurs a “moral duty” to “restore some semblance of order and stability…”   In the case of Afghanistan, this is nonsense.   The status quo of Afghanistan’s “political order” in September 2001 was, as the General himself describes, “chaotic” and “oppressive.”  By his own theory, then, the U.S. need only ensure that Afghanistan ends up no more chaotic or oppressive than it was pre-invasion.  The 2001 invasion alone made a vast improvement upon the existing political order by eliminating a pariah regime that gladly hosted international terrorists and imposed a cruel authoritarianism on its population.   If the U.S. had walked out of Afghanistan in January 2002, the situation in Afghanistan would have been vastly improved with the Northern Alliance in control of most of the country.

In fact, it is arguable that the U.S. only started to destroy the status quo of Afghanistan when it began meddling in its internal, political affairs with arrogant notions of 21st Century democracy and centralized government.  The problem, then, is not that the U.S. created a mess in Afghanistan by toppling the Taliban in October 2001, but that the U.S. stayed after toppling the Taliban in order to somehow save the Afghans from their own backward and stunted culture.   This was the “geopolitical sin” if Gen. McKiernan must find one.

What of General McKiernan’s larger premise, that the U.S. cannot intervene militarily without incurring a “moral commitment to repair” that nation?

This is a fundamentally flawed and mistaken view of U.S. power projection.  Originally espoused by General Colin Powell in 2002, Powell claims to have advised President Bush that any invasion of Iraq would be akin to breaking a dish and thereby taking ownership.  The so-called Pottery Barn school of  thought to which McKiernan subscribes assumes the existence of an unbroken Dish prior to U.S. involvement.  This is simply a fiction and a dangerous one at that.

Iraq was already in pieces under Saddam Hussein when the U.S. invaded in March 2003.   Once the Dictator and his police state were dismembered, the “dish” was already in infinitely better shape than its pre-invasion condition.   The U.S. would have been perfectly justified from a moral point of view in packing up and heading home at that point.   So, too, with Afghanistan: the “dish” was in far better shape after the removal of Al Qaeda bases and the Taliban than it was pre-invasion.

The Pottery Barn doctrine simply does not pertain to the exercise of U.S. military intervention at any point in U.S. history.   I cannot think of a single instance where the metaphorical dish was not already broken when the U.S. intervened.  If someone wants to argue about Nazi intervention in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and France, that is a different matter.   The U.S. is not an imperial power that topples healthy, functioning nation states and the application of the Pottery Barn doctrine to the U.S. may say far more about how people like Colin Powell and David McKiernan view U.S. power projection than it does about the actual world as we have it now.

American leadership needs to forcefully and decisively reject this wrong-headed notion of moral commitments to fix other nations.  It is not and has never been about moral commitments.  It is ever, only about the U.S. national interest.  That is the only way to rationally debate both the decision to intervene militarily and the decision, once intervention occurs, of how and when to leave.  This is not to say that our national interest does not align with notions of morality.  Very often it does and morality certainly forms a part of defining what the “national interest” is in the first place.   But evaluating policies, tactics and strategy from a moral viewpoint rather than the national interest leads to all kinds of fuzzy thinking and misguided efforts.   Afghanistan is, perhaps, the textbook example of these hazards.

To give but a few examples:  what is the U.S. national interest in pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into road, school, hospital and other construction in Afghanistan?  It certainly is a nice thing to do, a moral thing to do.  But how, precisely, does this make America more secure?  In a predominating culture that is so alien (indeed hostile one could say) to American values, the idea of changing that culture with billions in aid money can only be driven by a moralistic– an almost missionary– zeal that simply has no place in American foreign policy.   The national interest is solely concerned with ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a threat to American security again.   That was the only reason we invaded in 2001 (contrary to Gen. McKiernan’s idea of “revenge”).  There are many ways that this fundamental, U.S. interest could be achieved without any resort whatsoever to changing Afghan culture.

To look at another example briefly, consider Syria.

From the moralistic, Pottery Barn approach, intervening in Syria is a case of balancing the suffering of the Syrian people under the Dictator Assad with the unavoidable suffering of the people after a military intervention (whether that is invasion, air strikes, covert support for rebels, etc…).   This is why the Obama Administration and much of U.S. punditry is tied up in knots over Syria: there is no, clear way to evaluate human suffering in this manner.   (Anyone who doubts this need only look at Libya where, again, the scales of suffering seemed to tilt in favor of ousting Qaddafi only to find, now, that the increasing lawlessness and rise of Militant Islamists is beginning to make Qaddafi look rather tame by comparison).

Instead of playing these sorts of moral games, U.S. leadership should be looking at Syria from our own interests.   This clarifies things immediately.   Syria under Assad is an enemy of the U.S. and moves in lockstep with arch-enemy Iran.   This is a very, very broken dish (to use their parlance).  Toppling Assad by itself does not worsen the dish and is certainly in the U.S. national interest as it enhances our security immensely.

There is, of course, the question of what sort of government will replace Assad.   Here again the moralists and national interest part ways.   The moralists would say that the U.S. would “own” all of Syria’s problems if it intervened which means, presumably, another 10 or 20 year program of building schools, hospitals roads and civic institutions.   The national interest, at a bare minimum, however, doesn’t really care so much what comes after Assad so long as it is not worse than Assad.  We do not care, for example, if Syria falls into civil war so long as Syria cannot be the cat’s paw for Iran.   It is certainly in the national interest to back rebels that are sympathetic to U.S. values and goals, but if they are at least hostile to Iran and global jihad, that is enough.

In essence then, to the extent that U.S. policies and strategies are guided by the approach espoused by General McKiernan, we will find ourselves a vulnerable paralytic Power unable to intervene in the world where critical U.S. interests are at stake because to do so would automatically obligate us to an endless commitment of fixing the “broken dish.”   In such a world, we leave it to hostile powers all around us to shape things to their liking, one that will be little to our own.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Thanks for a great article Glen.

    Yes, clarity is a wonderful thing, and it strongly suggests that for all of the moralistic preening we do, notions of leaving the women of Afghanistan behind to their backward abuse by insecure men are mistaken.

    Perhaps we will do exactly that when we leave. That’s not the point. The point is the question “what is in the national security interests of the U.S.?” Even if we leave a country, or nation-state, or quasi-state, in worse shape than we found it, we have done a disservice to the U.S. if we have done anything at all out of a moralistic sense of duty to citizens of another country, and we have done a service to U.S. citizens if we in fact have made our own country more secure, whether they see it or not, and regardless of how we have left the other country.

    And with you, I continue to say that we have a national interest in Afghanistan. But we won’t fight the campaign that way, and continue to pursue population-centric COIN and state-building on the backs of weary warriors.

    Bring them all home. Fight wars to win. Leave the state-building to them.

  • TS Alfabet

    Amen and amen.

  • jbrookins

    I’ve become so frustrated over AFG that I can hardly write about it anymore. Of course I could say the same about most things in our country today.


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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Featured,Force Projection,Foreign Policy,General McKiernan,Iran,Islamists,Syria and was published May 10th, 2012 by Glen Tschirgi.

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