Afghanistan War


BOB ABERNETHY, host: This past week in Washington, the administration’s top political, military, and diplomatic leaders gathered to think through US options in Afghanistan. On October 7, the US will have been involved militarily in Afghanistan for eight years. What’s our mission there? Can it be achieved, and what are the moral dimensions of the debate? William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He brings to the discussion a strong grounding in the just war tradition. Bill, welcome.

WILLIAM GALSTON (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): Good to be here.

ABERNETHY: What can we say about what the mission in Afghanistan should be?

GALSTON: Well, we have to understand the mission in light of 9/11. The attack on the United States, which killed thousands of civilians, was conceived and launched by Al-Quaeda using Afghanistan as a base, with the Taliban government sheltering them, and the piece of the mission on which everyone agrees is the importance, the urgency, and the moral justification, the defensive justification, of making sure that Afghanistan cannot again serve as a base for terrorist attacks on the United States.

ABERNETHY: Okay, so what are the means to that end? How do we do it?

GALSTON: That’s one of the questions that’s being debated in Washington right now, and there are two basic options. Option number one is to try to create an Afghan government that is legitimate, enjoys the consent of the people, and has the capacity to prevent Al-Quaeda and other terrorist groups from acting on its territory. The other possibility is to abandon the hope of creating such a government on the grounds that we don’t have the capacity to do it, and focus instead on direct attacks on Al-Quaeda and other terrorists, using drones, using bombs…

ABERNETHY: In Pakistan as well as …

GALSTON: …and special forces, in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, absolutely.

ABERNETHY: And so can we do either of those?

GALSTON: That is a very important question, as we learned so painfully decades ago in Vietnam. It is wrong not to ask the question at the threshold, can we do what we want to do? It is immoral to send young people, young American men and women, to die in pursuit of an end that cannot be attained, and it is even worse if political leaders have good reason in advance to believe that the end that they are publicly declaring is unobtainable, and the worst of all is to use American troops for the immediate political advantage of the party of the administration in power.

ABERNETHY: One of the issues here is whether we can create the trust of the Afghan people in our ability to stay and do what’s necessary. Can they trust us to see it through?

GALSTON: That is a critical question, because by having anything to do with us in these remote villages they are risking their lives, and it would be wrong of us to send a signal that we’re in for the long haul and then leave our local allies in the lurch. Unfortunately, we have done that from time to time since the Second World War, and the results are never pretty, and the policy is never justified. If we tell people that they can depend on us, we’ve given a solemn promise on which they are wagering their lives, and we better honor that promise.

ABERNETHY: And so how do you come out, quickly? How do you come out on it?

GALSTON: I think that we have to go forward, and I have reluctantly concluded that an investment of additional troops represents the best way forward. Others that I respect differ with that conclusion.

ABERNETHY: William Galston of the Brookings Institution, many thanks.

GALSTON: My pleasure.