Carl von Clausewitz’s advice on the Afghan War

War divorced from an articulable political objective, Carl von Clausewitz lectured, is a frolic guaranteed to shipwreck. War for the sake of war is perpetual and repugnant to a civilized people. In other words, if you don’t know why you are sending people to die (and kill others), then you should probably desist from military operations.

From the outset, the United States’s post-9/11 war against Afghanistan was barren of any guiding political goal. The military objectives for fighting have been elusive and indeterminate. Yes, we have the greatest military on the planet, but that military is diminished and dispirited when it is given unachievable and undefined utopian goals.

Neither President George W. Bush nor President Barack Obama has been able to define victory beyond Justice Potter Stewart’s risible definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” According to Bob Woodward’s heralded book, “Obama’s Wars,” the United States is warring in Afghanistan to “degrade” the Taliban or al Qaida. Degrading the enemy, however, is a tactic, not a political objective. It is a Sisyphean task with no endpoint. We degrade plaque on a daily basis by brushing our teeth — but it always comes back.

There has been terrorism from the dawn of warfare. In the case of Afghanistan and elsewhere, we have turned our eyes away from the causes of terrorism directed against us — which have political roots.

The congressionally enacted Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), established in 2001 just after the 9/11 attacks, is equally obscure about any political objective in warring against Afghanistan. It provides: “That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”

The “organizations or persons” who planned the 9/11 attacks, and those who provided direct support, are long gone from Afghanistan. Yet we are still there. Why?

The argument that we need to be there in order to deter terrorism and prevent new al Qaida safe havens from emerging in Afghanistan is invalid. There are far more effective (and active) al Qaida havens in Pakistan. Further, the presence of conventional forces in Afghanistan does nothing to deter international terrorism. Indeed, they provoke the evil by the inevitable killing of innocent civilians and the destruction of an antediluvian culture of which the United States is clueless. Finally, it is beyond the wisdom or capacity of the United States to make the corrupt, inept, sectarian, nepotistic regime of President Hamid Karzai sufficiently legitimate and popular to withstand toppling by the Taliban or other opposition forces. The United States provided extravagant financial and military assistance to the Shah of Iran after the CIA’s orchestrated overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossedeq. The assistance, however, proved impotent against the fury of Ayatollah Khomeini, which was fueled by the Shah’s American-subsidized brutality and thievery.

International terrorism, like international drug trafficking or organized crime, should be answered with upgraded law enforcement, including the use of Special Forces. But it is not war. The United States criminal code makes international terrorism a civilian crime to be prosecuted in civilian courts.

The AUMF was the offspring of the ill-starred Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which ignited the politically objectless Vietnam War. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution empowered the president to employ the armed forces “to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” The Vietnam War was doomed from the outset by the absence of any coherent political objective in South Vietnam.