It should not be axiomatic that if the American people, by a margin of greater than two to one disapprove of a war, than the U.S. should end that war. However, if public opinion runs that strongly against a war, or any foreign policy, the U.S. government should have a clear, compelling and realistic rationale for pursuing that policy. Unfortunately, no such rationale exists for the war in Afghanistan. After more than a decade of war, and despite some significant accomplishments, most notably the killing of Osama Bin Laden, victory in Afghanistan remains poorly defined and elusive.
The latest round of violence in Afghanistan demonstrates the need to continue to withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. The immediate cause of this upsurge in violence has been the burning of Korans by American troops. President Obama, in a fit of decency, apologized for American actions that could be generously described as insensitive. Obama’s apology was met by attacks from, among others, Newt Gingrich, arguing essentially that the U.S. should never have to apologize for anything. This argument is axiomatically wrong, but it is also very disturbing. Being truly patriotic means loving and caring about your country enough that when those ideals are violated you want your country to act accordingly. Believing you never need to apologize is territory best left to megalomaniacs and bullies, qualities we do not need in an American president.
The lessons which the U.S. learns from Afghanistan will frame foreign policy for the decades to come, but it is not at all clear what all those lessons will be. Some of these lessons, that the U.S. cannot easily bring any country it chooses into the modern democratic world, that we should not lay our trust in leaders as erratic, undependable and corrupt as Hamid Karzai, that winning the peace is far more difficult than winning the war and that the conflicts of the 21st century are quite different than those which characterized most of the 20th century, are obvious.
When Donovan sang the song “And The War Drags On” more than four decades ago, he was referring to Vietnam, but one could be forgiven for thinking the song was written yesterday about Afghanistan. It has now been about five months since President Obama announced his strategy of increasing troops in Afghanistan and a vague commitment to withdrawing most U.S. troops beginning in mid-2011. The administration began back pedaling from that pledge almost immediately after Obama made it. With the deadline for withdrawing troops only slightly more than a year away, that goal seems more remote today than it did a year ago.