The announcement that Secretary of State John Kerry forged an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to allow America to keep thousands of troops in that country indefinitely after 2014 left me with mixed emotions.
On the positive side, I am proud of my friend and former colleague for his great skill.
But despite my vicarious pride in this demonstration of his considerable talent, I wish he had failed. What he has accomplished is to commit America to spend additional tens of billions of dollars on a futile, open-ended effort to make Afghanistan a coherent, semidemocratic society in which corruption is reduced and human rights respected.
If I thought it were possible for the American military to bring about such drastic changes in Afghan society, I would be conflicted. The pressure to reduce our deficit means that our ability to spend sufficient resources to improve our quality of life has diminished. Continuing to divert a significant amount of those resources to transform Afghan society is a choice I would reluctantly make if I thought there was any real chance of success. I do recognize some moral responsibility to help alleviate suffering and protect vulnerable people in a country where we waged war.
We had the moral responsibility to stop Osama bin Laden from his international killing spree, and I welcomed as an additional benefit the removal of the Taliban from its brutal rule over the Afghan people.
But there is now no plausible case that spending the tens of billions of dollars it will take to keep 10,000 American troops indefinitely in that country, and to continue vast amounts of aid which are subject to the corrupt regime of Karzai and whoever he picks as his successor, will significantly achieve these goals.
Our experience in Afghanistan reinforces a basic lesson: The American military is very good at what a military can do – stopping bad things from happening, particularly when an outside force is inflicting harm on another country. But no military can make good things happen within a society where the will of the people themselves is absent.
Libya is an example of this. I supported American air power being used to get rid of Muammar Gaddafi. But I question whether the people of Libya are significantly better off in the chaos that replaced him, with gun-toting thugs terrorizing much of the population. Nor does it seem that the average citizen of Iraq is significantly better off with Saddam Hussein having been eliminated. The violent, turbulent conditions in that country confirm my view that I was right to vote against that particular war.
My dismay at reading of Kerry’s success in persuading Karzai to let us continue to spend many billions of dollars in his country was exacerbated by a recent article in the New York Times.
This piece talked of the possibility of a larger agreement to bring down our budget deficit over the years, with the president agreeing to reduce funding for Social Security and Medicare, if the Republicans would agree to higher taxes on the very wealthy. I believe there is room for some degree of negotiation here, and I was particularly struck that one of the things the Republicans are now ready to do is to cut back on the private insurance payments known as Medigap since they harshly attacked those of us who voted for the health care bill because it began that process.
But one sentence in that article reflected an infuriating mindset that the New York Times buys into: the assertion that the major cause of our future budget problems is our decision to continue to make it possible for older people in our country to live comfortably in their retirement. The proposal to reduce the cost-of-living increase that goes to people who are living on $1,500 a month seems to me outrageous, particularly if we are asked to spend tens of billions more in Afghanistan and act as if we should be grateful to Karzai for letting us do it. (The most popular book in the world must be “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” because a large number of incompetent, dishonest and ineffective rulers in other countries appeared to have figured out how to get us to paint their fences).
Since George Bush became president in 2001, the major increase in our expenditures has been in the military budget, not in money we give for older people to be able to meet their expenses or pay their medical bills.
I was pleased by the reaction of the American people against intervention in Syria, even though I thought the president was right to push for a one-time punishment of Assad for the use of chemical weapons.
But given this rejection of large-scale military intervention into the troubled internal affairs of countries that are foreign to us culturally, religiously and economically, the time has come to take the logical next step: substantially reduce the military establishment we have maintained for that purpose. I want America to be the strongest nation in the world, and I want us to have the capacity to fight terrorism, but the military buildup that George Bush began is far beyond what any rational view of America’s security needs can justify.
There are other important causes on which Kerry can expend his considerable skill. He has already taken the lead in bringing about an Israeli-Palestinian peace, with more progress than many thought possible, and I am proud that the sanctions that started in the committee I chaired give him an opening in negotiations with Iran.
If and when Karzai raises some predictable objections to the tentative agreement that he and Kerry made, I urge my old friend to accept the impossibility of achieving what we have set for ourselves to do in Afghanistan. Let’s bring our troops and money home, and use Kerry’s great energy and talent in better causes.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.
– Special to the Telegram