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Crying Over Spilled Milk: Making Sense of Policy Objectives in Afghanistan

– 2LT Ty Stephens.

We have been at war in Afghanistan for over a decade. So long that political interest and awareness about the conflict seem to ebb and flow in the minds of most American citizens. What was front page news in the beginning, quickly faded from the public eye as it became overshadowed by other events, to include the war in Iraq. Occasionally, certain periods of intense conflict or sensational mistakes like the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier or Marines desecrating the corpses of Taliban fighters seem to to thrust the war in Afghanistan back into every-day society. Usually such headlines often frame the war in Afghanistan in a negative light. Unless you have been directly affected by the war in Afghanistan through either serving or knowing someone who has it can be difficult to make sense of it all. The absence of any real discourse of the war in Afghanistan among the general public, while somewhat concerning, is understandable given the priorities of our modern-day news media, lack of an overwhelming national effort due to an all-volunteer professional (i.e. small) military, and distractions and competing priorities that are inherent in both democracies and American society. So how do we make sense of it? Why is it important? And why should citizens pay attention?

I will not pretend to have the answer to those questions. But that should not stop you from asking them. By not asking we are committing the worst sin a civil society can– sending troops to harm’s way for reasons we do not really care about. So, Americans should have questions and they should disagree with one another and they should talk about Afghanistan. The best I can do is share a little perspective from my end.

In an article entitled “Whose Fault is our Afghanistan Failure?”, Hugh White states “Some good things have been achieved in Afghanistan, and some of them may even last once ISAF is gone. But for those of us interested in the decisions that governments make about the use of armed force, the fact that something has been achieved is not enough. The question that must be asked is whether the achievements have been worth the cost.” In an Australian TV Documentary, MAJ General John Cantwell, states that “Military service in a society like ours is based on an implicit agreement. Soldiers agree to follow orders; to go where they’re sent and fight who they’re told, even at risk to their lives. In return, we – their senior officers, their ministers and ultimately the public – promise that we will not order them into danger unless really critical national interests are at stake, and the operations they are committed to have a reasonable chance of success. In Afghanistan I’m not sure we have lived up to our side of that deal.”

The argument is that perhaps our policies in Afghanistan were too broad. Our hopes too grand. That the precursors (poverty, radicalism, instability) that allow terrorism to exist cannot be solved. That the Karzai government will never become the legitimate and self-sufficient institution we have envisioned for it. That our military cannot fight a counterinsurgency. Those arguments are not without merit, at best everything we hope to achieve in Afghanistan is uncertain. We simply do not know. What is clear is that with great hardship comes great opportunity. Our ambitions will never come to fruition by refusing to confront the issues. We cannot hide our heads in the sand and simply will these problems away. Sooner or later, we will have to confront them. And if we choose to wait– to give up hope– to withdrawal before our objectives are met– we will only be passing the buck to the next generation– where the cost will almost certainly be higher. The world is changing and we must choose to change with it– or risk being left behind.

Are these problems really insurmountable? Or are we just making excuses for why we cannot solve them? My point is, no one said it would be easy. The sooner we accept that we can start moving forward.

I am no statesman or politician. In terms of military hierarchy, I am about as low as you can get on the pecking order. I am not privy to the broader policies and objectives that occur across the “think-tanks” and “cabinet rooms” of D.C. I get my news from the same place everyone else does. But as a second lieutenant who will likely take command of a platoon in Afghanistan within the year, I do have a stake in this conflict. I do not write policy– I execute it. My soldiers will execute it at the level where bullets, bombs and flesh define existence. They will execute at the cost of life and limb. Former Marine CPT Nathan Fick sums what I believe up in his book One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer when he states “People die in war. Every one of us in the all-volunteer military accepted that. But the death better not be senseless, the mission not unnecessary, the planning not shoddy, the equipment not inadequate.” To this Fick later added that his decisions had to clear two hurdles: first, what he was being asked to do had to morally/ethically right. Second, he had to be willing to sit down with someone’s family and tell them why their son, father, or husband had died working for him– and why he thought it had been worth it. “‘This sets the bar very very high,’ he adds. ‘But we cleared it everyday.’”

With the recent loss of West Point classmates, high school classmates, and many others– the costs are something that I personally have become very aware of. As a society, by deploying troops we have already committed to the belief that the costs are worth it. We have to believe the ends do justify the means. We cannot take that back. We can not give families back their sons or daughters, husbands and wives. The only way is the way forward. We must confront the issues. Hiding our head in sand and wishing it all away will get us as a nation nowhere and only tarnishes the hard work and sacrifice of so many of our servicemen. The defining moments of this nation have always been underscored by her greatest doubts. Our responsibility as a nation is to ensure those sacrifices are not made in vain– by finishing what we have started and making good on the promises we have given both the Afghan people and the world.

The opinions contained are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

4 Responses to “Crying Over Spilled Milk: Making Sense of Policy Objectives in Afghanistan”

  1. thanks for posting — good thoughts. it’s interesting to see Hugh White referenced outside Australia.. he’s a big deal here (and a professor in my current program) but I’d never heard of him before I arrived in Oz. hope all’s well buddy, keep these coming

  2. tstephens12 says:

    Small world. I ran across him on the SWJ Forum. He makes some good points that are worth thinking about. Just don’t think we should start throwing in the towel just yet. I think Afghanistan is just too important for us to let go, not just for the sake of regional security in South Asia, and a big blow to AQ– but also to prove to ourselves that we can fight the COIN fight. If we fail, I got an odd feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more COIN engagements in other places over the next few decades.

    • yep, I agree – especially with the last reason. the effect on our “national psyche” (or whatever you want to call it) would be pretty dramatic if we tuck tail and run like the Soviets. I disagree with almost everything Hugh White says.. but he says it nicely

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