Remembrance of debates past

My college friend and roommate Paul Pillar has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post. It’s called “Who’s Afraid of A Terrorist Haven?” I assume, and certainly hope, that Paul is not responsible for the title.
Paul does argue that terrorist havens, such as those in Afghanistan, are overrated in terms of the danger they pose of terrorists attacks against U.S. interests. But eventually he concedes that a haven in Afghanistan is a good thing for terrorists to have.
Paul then tries to frame the debate over Afghanistan this way:

[T]he issue is whether preventing such a haven would reduce the terrorist threat to the United States enough from what it otherwise would be to offset the required expenditure of blood and treasure and the barriers to success in Afghanistan, including an ineffective regime and sagging support from the population. Thwarting the creation of a physical haven also would have to offset any boost to anti-U.S. terrorism stemming from perceptions that the United States had become an occupier rather than a defender of Afghanistan.

But the amount of the reduction in the terrorist threat to the U.S. that would result from denying al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan cannot be quantified. Similarly, we cannot quantify the extent, if at all, to which remaining in Afghanistan will boost anti-U.S. terrorism as a result of potential terrorist recruits being unhappy with us. Nor do we even know what it will cost in “blood and treasure” to succeed in Afghanistan.
Paul may believe, though he doesn’t say it, that the inability to know these things constitutes a good argument for quitting Afghanistan. This type of argument tilts the debate too decisively in favor of inaction, the kind of inaction that plagued U.S. policy during the 1990s as the terrorist threat proceeded unchecked towards 9/11.
Paul’s statement of “the issue” is also too skewed to be of much use. For example, he wants policy makers to factor in the extent to which remaining, and even succeeding, in Afghanistan might create new terrorists. But he excludes any consideration of whether a U.S. defeat at the hands of rag-tag fighters in the nation where 9/11 was hatched might create new terrorists, as our exit from Somalia is said to have done.
More generally, Paul does not want to consider the extent to which the U.S. would be harmed by a loss of credibility if it backed out of a war that, unlike Iraq, both political parties have talked up. Instead, he notes that this argument was made in favor of the war in Vietnam. But he never tries to show that it lacked validity as a rationale for fighting that war.
The “loss of credibility” issue has particular resonance with me in this context. When we were in college, Paul and I would argue about the war in Vietnam. Paul’s argument in favor of the war centered around the loss of credibility that abandoning the South Vietnamese would cause. I always had trouble dealing with this argument and for a good reason – it was highly plausible and probably true.
The best answer, which can only be offered after the fact, is that we probably did not enhance U.S. credibility by fighting on for six years after Paul and I started having our arguments, only to be chased out in the end after the loss of ten of thousands of additional American lives. (Paul would serve in Vietnam and, if I recall correctly, was there at or near the end).
And this, I think, points us to the heart of the matter in Afghanistan. The key question is whether we can succeed and at what cost. If we can answer that question, then regardless of what the answer is, I don’t think we’ll need to spend much effort trying somehow to quantify the number of terrorist attacks a victory will (or would) prevent.

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