So I wrote this to one of the (too many) listservs I’m on, in response to a question about whether the Afghanistan war — or escalating it — is justifiably seen as a progressive goal. My reply was that I see the case for continuing the war and progressivism as two ships passing in the night, a category error. Reading my reply over, I figured I should just post it, since I haven’t recently written anything from a normative perspective about the merits of escalating the war. Frequent readers will have probably figured out where I stand. But why not be explicit about it? So, here goes, with some edits…

I would say the case for escalation is a case based on the national interest. That is, escalation in Afghanistan is necessary to secure our legitimate security interest against al-Qaeda. This can be done by adopting a counterinsurgency approach to deprive al-Qaeda of the strategic depth provided by its Afghan allies through addressing root-cause or ‘demand-side’ reasons why Afghans actively or passively bandwagon with the insurgency: lack of governance; lack of resources; and lack of security. I consider those to be achievable goals, but it’s quite possible they’re not, and the time that all of this could have been achieved is passed. I would be lying if I said I could know for sure. But I think the risks of continuing Afghan instability, providing al-Qaeda with greater strategic depth, trump the risks of not trying. I don’t like the fact that I find this to be a compelling argument, for what it’s worth.

The war may have some benefits that are progressive — such as cementing at least some gains in women’s rights — or it might not. An end to the war might, for instance, involve negotiations that empower at least some elements of the Taliban. And it’s not like the Afghan government today is remotely progressive. What I’m saying is that progressivism is orthogonal, or at best peripheral, to this war and its escalation. My heart is with the advocacy groups that say the U.S. ought to emphasize women’s rights more in the case for the war, as Ben Smith reports on, but I fear it would be misleading and exploitative to sell a war based on concerns that are not ultimately central to the objective. That’s not to say we ought to be indifferent to women’s rights, because we shouldn’t. We have a lot of influence over the Karzai government, and if there’s ever a cause that gets me thinking there are worse offenses than interference in a country’s self-determination, it’s the prospect of half the population stifling the desires of the other half.

But it is to say we ought to apply a test: what concerns, by themselves, justify a long and costly war? For me, it’s the prospect of extirpating al-Qaeda by getting rid of the conditions that allow it to function, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, in combination with the unavoidable military activity against the individuals that make up al-Qaeda. This is a war that we can end, on terms satisfactory to our interests.

That doesn’t have to be the end of the argument. I view the national-interest case for escalation as compelling, but not by much, and the arguments for it grow more compelling when paired with an ultimate endpoint for a war entering Year Nine, as Obama apparently will lay out tomorrow. But I think we should be pretty clear-eyed that this about the national-interest, not additional progressive goals. Wars can be justified and/or necessary without being progressive. The Gulf War, for instance, was, and it wasn’t progressive, unless we’re to define progressivism down to mean “opposition to foreign military conquest.”

So: handwringing enough for you? To add one other meta point: I hate the term “liberal hawk” for a variety of reasons. But foremost among them is the fact that it’s an incoherent term. It has to mean “hawk for liberal reasons” if it is to be meaningful, not “hawk who happens to be a liberal.” In this case, though, I’m the latter. Now take me to task in comments and strengthen my argument.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman