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Afghanistan: The Negative-Sum War

Ann Marlowe

What is strange about the war in Afghanistan is that both the United States and the insurgents appear to be playing a negative-sum game. Many wars, of course, are zero-sum games, where one side’s loss is another’s gain. And many counterinsurgencies seem to be games in which the counterinsurgents lose. But the current war is unusual in that the insurgents aren’t benefiting from our setbacks.

If we take the Taliban/Hezb-i-Islami/etc. at their word, that they don’t want foreigners/infidels meddling in Afghanistan, then they would have been better off doing nothing rather than escalating violence after 2002. If Afghanistan had been quiet, ISAF forces would have trickled down to a small number. And Afghanistan in 2010 would have looked a lot more like it did in 2002.

The Afghan economy would be far weaker, without the infusion of military spending. The roads built by the US military in the east and south would still be made of dirt. Fewer schools would have been built by the US military in the Pashtun belt, fewer foreign-backed “civil society strengthening” projects would have been funded, and fewer young Afghans would have been exposed to foreign ways. Certainly fewer Afghan civilians would have been killed by ISAF (and by the insurgents). In fact, fewer insurgents would have been killed. The Afghan National Army would likely be far smaller and less well equipped and trained. It may be hard to imagine the Afghan National Police being more feeble than they are, but they would have been a nearly 100 percent untrained, ragged militia.

It’s possible that if the insurgents hadn’t done much other than wait, then by 2010 they would have been able to easily dominate a country that would have had few foreign or national forces to resist them. Arguably, the country would be much more accepting of traditional Pashtun customs, less removed from the Taliban period.

I’ve suggested before that we may have accelerated the development of the insurgency by our mere presence. This isn’t the whole story; Pakistan, Iran, and intra-insurgent power struggles are also a part of the picture. But crudely, the more foreign troops are in Afghanistan, the more violence has grown. And it’s irrational to think that adding yet more troops, or giving the “strategy” yet more time, will produce results dissimilar from those of the past.

This argument will annoy many of my political allies on the right—and it even annoys me. I firmly believe that the American presence in Afghanistan has done the country more good than anything in the last seven hundred years or so. I don’t think the insurgents have anything to offer Afghans, and I’d like to kill every last one of the true believers. But the corollary to my argument is that the insurgents are behaving just as irrationally as we are. They are further away from an pure, undeveloped, Islamic Afghanistan than when they started.

I’ll close with a quote from Sebastian Junger’s new book, War. He’s talking about the bloody struggle for the Korengal Valley, but he could just as well be speaking to both sides about the war itself:

There’s so much human energy involved—so much courage, so much honor, so much blood—you could easily go a year here without questioning whether any of this needs to be happening in the first place. Nothing could convince this many people to work this hard at something that wasn’t necessary—right?—you’d catch yourself thinking. (p. 146)

Sounds like the definition of a negative-sum game.

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