Carl von Clausewitz’s advice on the Afghan War

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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.

More than 10 years after the Afghan War commenced, causing death to thousands of courageous American soldiers and the expenditure of a staggering $1 trillion, the United States remains at sea as to the benchmarks of “victory,” i.e., a definable political objective for the warfare. Afghanistan is a second but more expensive edition of Vietnam. We have neither the legal nor the moral obligation to force our brave soldiers to risk their lives for a delusionary quest to establish and maintain a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan.

The 9/11 abominations should not have provoked the United States to war against an inextinguishable tactic. Instead, Special Forces should have been authorized to capture and prosecute persons indicted for complicity in the 9/11 mass murders. Moreover, deadly force by Special Forces would be appropriate if the indicted suspect attempted to flee, according to the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Garner. Osama bin Laden had been indicted by a federal grand jury prior to 9/11. Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “twentieth hijacker,” was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for mass murder in a civilian court.

The number of al Qaida members implicated in the 9/11 attacks would not overwhelm the criminal justice system. At present, for instance, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center estimates the number of al Qaida members in all of Afghanistan at between 50 and 100. And the criminal justice system, by prosecuting conspiracy or agreements to commit crimes in the future, is forward-looking and preventive, not backward-looking and reactive.

The 9/11 attacks did not succeed because al Qaida was so formidable, but because the United States was so inept. The Defense Department withheld the intelligence collected in Operation Able Danger from the FBI. The intelligence product of Able Danger was orphaned by the 9/11 Commission in its desire to “tell the story” rather than tell the truth. Operation Able Danger was designed to conduct surgical operations against al Qaida before 9/11. It had identified Mohammad Atta (in alias) and several other 9/11 hijackers well before the fact. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh maintained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in November 2005 that had he received the Able Danger information regarding al Qaida cells operating in the U.S. under the direct control of Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 hijackings could have been thwarted with criminal law enforcement tools. But the information was concealed from the FBI because of misplaced advice from Department of Defense lawyers. A full accounting of this ill-starred compartmentalization by the 9/11 Commission would have proven that enhanced cooperation between law enforcement and the intelligence community, not war or the wounding of the rule of law or liberty at home, was the key to combating international terrorism.

Israel resorted to Special Forces, i.e., Mossad and the IDF, to eliminate members of al Fatah complicit in the massacre of its Olympian athletes in Munich. That is the model the United States should be following in answering adherents to al Qaida or the Taliban complicit in 9/11 or sister acts of international terrorism directed against United States citizens.

The 100,000 regular troops now deployed in Afghanistan to defend the Karzai government (which expresses more fealty to Pakistan than to the United States) should be withdrawn to defend Americans at home. As certain as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the withdrawal will not embolden al Qaida or the Taliban to attack Americans on American soil. Indeed, the withdrawal will make us safer by ending twin causes of enmity against the United States: the witting or unwitting killing of innocent civilians; and the propping up of the popularly execrated and ubiquitously corrupt regime of President Hamid Karzai.

Bruce Fein is a senior policy adviser to the Ron Paul 2012 Presidential Campaign. Tony Shaffer is a New York Times bestselling author and a senior fellow at Bruce Fein is a senior policy adviser to the Ron Paul 2012 Presidential Campaign. Tony Shaffer is a New York Times bestselling author and a senior fellow at The Center for Advanced Defense Studies.