Looking Back at Afghanistan, the War of Necessity

Afghan commandos are positioned in Pandola village near the site of the U.S. MOAB bombing in the Achin district of Afghanistan on April 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

“The Ten Ships,” which was written ten years ago, argued that Afghanistan had no intrinsic geographical value in the War on Terror.

One of the reasons the Navy opposed a Southwest Pacific campaign during the Pacific War was the shrewd appreciation that once bureaucracy started on a task it would grow with it like a cancer whatever its original purpose. Admiral King wasn’t against an action in the Solomons. He was just afraid that it would take on a life of its own. The passage of time has not changed this this tendency. The campaign in Afghanistan began in 2002 with a specific purpose. But by the time Barack Obama was running for President its chief attraction was the fact that it was an alternative to the campaign in Iraq. A 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal covering his speech before the VWF captured his thinking: Afghanistan was a “war of necessity”, unlike Iraq, which was a “war of choice”. Of all the “false choices” the President was fond of rhetorically raising, this was perhaps the falsest choice of all. By asserting that Afghanistan, not oil or the Middle East or radical Islam was the center of gravity of the enemy, President Obama completely misframed the strategic choices.


Time has been kind to that assessment.  Attempts to remake Afghanistan into something moderately Western through nation-building has wound up feeding the Taliban. “Families of almost 150 U.S. service members and civilians who were killed or wounded in terror attacks in Afghanistan sued a group of Western contractors involved in the nation’s reconstruction for allegedly bribing the Taliban for protection for years.”

The alleged payments ultimately helped finance a Taliban-led insurgency that led to the attacks in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2017, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Washington. The suit seeks unspecified damages for the families under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

“Defendants were all large Western companies with lucrative businesses in post-9/11 Afghanistan, and they all paid the Taliban to refrain from attacking their business interests,” according to the complaint. “Those protection payments aided and abetted terrorism by directly funding an al-Qaida-backed Taliban insurgency that killed and injured thousands of Americans.”

The Ten Ships argued — ten years ago — that one denies the jihad money, not give it to them. “Afghanistan happened to be the place from which Osama Bin launched his attack on September 11. Admiral Nagumo launched his infamous attack on Pearl Harbor from a nameless patch of ocean 200 miles North of Oahu. But Admiral King had the sense to understand that the location itself had little significance. It was the Kido Butai, the ten carriers which made up the Japanese Fast Carrier force which momentarily occupied that ocean waste that he had to destroy. While the Kido Butai existed it could move across the vast spaces and attack at a point of its choosing. While it survived every patch of ocean was dangerous. Once it had been neutralized all the oceans of the world were potentially safe.”


For all of its defects the campaign in Iraq was at least in the right place: at the locus of oil, ideology and brutal regimes that are the Middle East. Ideally the campaign in Iraq would have a sent a wave of democratization through the area, undermined the attraction of radical Islam, provided a base from which to physically control oil if necessary. That the campaign failed to attain many of objectives should not obscure the fact that its objectives were valid. It made far more strategic sense than fighting tribesmen in Afghanistan. Ideology, rogue regimes, energy are the three entities which have replaced the “ten ships” of 70 years ago. The means through which these three entities should be engaged ought to be the subject of reasoned debate, whether by military, economic or technological means. But the vital nature of these objectives ought not to be. Neutralize the intellectual appeal of radical Islam, topple the rogue regimes, and ease Western dependence on oil and you win the war. Yet their centrality, and even their existence is what the politicians constantly deny.

If the War on Terror seems largely won today, or at least less desperate than September 2001, it is because radical Islam has discredited itself, the strongmen of the Middle East have self-immolated themselves through their own dysfunction, and entrepreneurs have eased American dependence on foreign oil through fracking and other innovations.


But more illustrious voices argued the exact opposite.  If we gave our foes money we could make them our friends.  Time has not been equally kind to endorsements of Obama’s nation-building strategy, in what the president then called “the war of necessity” in contrast to the Middle East as a theater of “choice.” That thinking, we now know, funded the Taliban.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is on visits to rural Pakistan to see fundamentalist Wahabi-funded madrassas as the only game in town. They offer free meals, and the best students are given further scholarships to study abroad at fundamentalist institutions so that they come back as respected “scholars.”

We don’t even compete. Medieval misogynist fundamentalists display greater faith in the power of education than Americans do.

Let’s hope this is changing under the Obama administration. It’s promising that the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package provides billions of dollars for long-term civilian programs in Pakistan, although it’s still unclear how it will be implemented. One useful signal would be for Washington to encourage Islamabad to send not only troops to North Waziristan but also teachers.

My closing paragraph in Ten Ships can be repeated in its entirety.

The War on Terror, if one may use the term, will be won or lost in Washington DC. Although the valor and competence of the Armed Forces will play a large part, the major factor will be whether the political elite can muster the will name its enemy and recognize its foes strategic center of gravity. Killing tribesmen, creating a network of robotic killers in the skies, and surveilling everything that uses a cell phone or moves has no meaning outside of a strategic context. They are not ends in themselves. They only have meaning insofar as they advance the cause of undermining the enemy’s center of gravity. Sink those ten ships, King knew, and you win the Pacific war. Fail and no patch of ocean is safe. The calculus still applies. If you can’t see Hezbollah, can’t see the regime in Iran, can’t see Syria, can’t see the Wahabis and can only see Afghanistan, then you are in a world of pain.


Somewhere in the years between Admiral King and Obama Washington forgot the basics. Not by necessity but by complacent choice.

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