John McCain Justifies Afghanistan

The recent US bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan has led the US military to reconsider its involvement there. This sounds like good news… until you discover that the military is not considering leaving sooner. Instead, they’re lobbying to stay in Afghanistan longer than the current timeline (2016) and openly discussing the possibility of staying forever. This emerged during the Senate Armed Services Committee meeting earlier this week

Senator John McCain serves as the chair of the committee, and recently gave an interview to NPR‘s Steve Inskeep to discuss Afghanistan. And while I take issue with virtually everything he said, he deserves credit for his frankness. We’ll look at a couple of his arguments in this post, and we’ll start with the one that was the most outrageous. Here, he’s responding to a question from the host about whether the AC-130 gunships used in the hospital attack were a proper weapon (emphasis added):

MCCAIN: The right weapon to choose is the weapon that most rapidly and effectively and efficiently kills the enemy. And I have seen, as you mentioned, these gunships in action. They have saved American lives by being able to suppress the enemy and enemy fire. This tragedy – and it’s a terrible tragedy – would not have occurred if the Taliban had not attacked the place to start with. And so I find it ludicrous and insulting that people would say because of this terrible accident that somehow, war crimes are committed. To call that a war crime distorts the definition of a war crime.

INSKEEP: When you referred, Senator, to the Taliban attacking the place, did you mean to suggest the Taliban were at or in the near vicinity of that hospital? Because Doctors Without Borders has denied that.

MCCAIN: I’m saying that they were in the vicinity because they were in Kunduz.

INSKEEP: In the city of, OK.

MCCAIN: Yeah, but I think it’s pretty obvious that fire was coming from the Taliban in the city. I am not saying that there was anything but a terrible tragedy, but to think that everything we do is with pinpoint accuracy lacks a fundamental understanding of what warfare is all about.

His argument is that the bombing was really the Taliban’s fault because they were there and fighting US-backed forces. If the Taliban didn’t resist, we wouldn’t have to drop bombs, so it’s clearly on them. This is a remarkable justification, particularly when you realize that the city he’s referring to has 300,000 people and is thus larger than say, Cincinnati, Ohio. And given how broad this qualification is, what he’s really saying is this: if the US encounters resistance, we can do whatever we want. Then remember that this guy was actually pretty close to becoming president.

When he wasn’t defending the hospital bombing, McCain made the case that we need to keep US troops in Afghanistan forever to support the Afghan military. His bluntness on this point is again rare and refreshing; he’s not even pretending the Afghan military we’re training will ever be self-sufficient. He’s not saying we just need a few more years to get them ready; he’s acknowledging the reality that that day will never come. And he is right about that. The Afghan government lacks popular support and is thus heavily dependent on the US to help battle an endless insurgency. If and when the US leaves, Afghanistan will likely descend further into a chaotic civil war until the Taliban return to power. This is the situation today, and it will probably still be the situation 4 years from now if we stay. Being on the brink of civil war is clearly tragic, but does it therefore follow that we should stay indefinitely to prevent it?

The conflict in Afghanistan is often framed in terms of helping The Government fight The Terrorists. And when you hear it described like that, it seems obvious, perhaps, that we should side with the government. But the reality is much more complicated. Broadly speaking, the Afghan security forces and government are led by a lot of the same warlords that dominated Afghanistan before the Taliban took power in 1996. And being warlords, they’re not exactly pillars of virtue. To support this notion, we could look at the Wikipedia page for the current Vice President, Rashid Dostum, where we would learn that he was involved in the Dasht-i-Leili massacre, in which 1,500 Taliban prisoners were summarily killed during the US invasion 2011. Then as now, Dostum was our ally. We could also recall the recent reporting in the New York Times discussing widespread child molestation committed by members of the security forces. And while child molestation was a problem in Afghan society long before the US invasion, we should note that the Taliban actually rose to power in part because they put an end to child rape. Of course, we shouldn’t glorify the Taliban either. They are still a religious fundamentalist group and they have claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings that have killed civilians. But the point is that our allies are not quite as virtuous and our enemies are not quite as uniformly evil as we would like to pretend.

Given this understanding, perhaps one may still conclude that we should continue to back the present government with all its flaws. But advocates of this line should be honest about what’s going on. We’re backing one side of a civil war against the other. And John McCain would like us to continue doing that forever.

*Initially, this article erroneously stated that there was a bombing of a US hospital in Afghanistan, rather than a hospital bombing in Afghanistan carried out by the US, which is in fact what happened. It has been updated to correct this error.

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