Catch-22 and the long war in Afghanistan

By Bernd Debusmann
October 1, 2009

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Listening to the protracted Washington debate over the war in Afghanistan, the phrase Catch-22 comes to mind. It was the title of a best-selling 1961 satirical novel on World War II by Joseph Heller and entered the popular lexicon to denote a conundrum without a winning solution.

Example: You can’t get work without experience and you can’t get experience without work.

In the context of the war in Afghanistan, soon entering its ninth year and already longer than the Vietnam war, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in mid-September heard a description of the Afghan conundrum worthy of joining a list of examples to explain Catch-22.

“You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban.
There cannot be security without development or development without security.”

That observation came from Rory Stewart, an expert witness with a more intimate understanding of Afghanistan than most — he walked, alone, across the entire country (the size of Texas, twice the size of Vietnam) on a trek that began two weeks after U.S. troops and bombers drove the Taliban government from power in 2002.

That was the “good war,” a widely-applauded act of vengeance and punishment for the Taliban for having played host to Osama bin Laden and his fellow al Qaeda planners of the Sept. 11 mass murder of 3,000 people in Manhattan and Washington. The assault on Afghanistan had a clear rationale but the war gradually morphed into a nation-building exercise that defied simple answers to the question “why are we there?”

Stewart, now a professor at Harvard and head of a foundation in Kabul dedicated to reviving the Afghan capital’s historic commercial center, was one of several experts asked to analyze the state of the war in Afghanistan and suggest ways forward after President Barack Obama decided the Afghan strategy he announced on March 27 needed re-appraising.

The overall aim Obama then laid out in what he described as a “comprehensive new strategy … the conclusion of a careful policy review” did not differ greatly from the goals laid out, but never given enough resources, by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Defeating the Taliban, dismantling the al Qaeda network, training Afghans to take over from U.S. troops, helping set up an effective government.

That last goal, possibly the most difficult, appears as “Objective 3b” in a draft paper from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It lays out metrics to measure progress. Objective 3b is to “promote a more capable, accountable and effective government in Afghanistan,” to be measured by “demonstrable action … against corruption.”


Much of the public debate on revising strategy has focused on troop levels – 10,000 more? 30,000? 40,000? – and relatively little on exactly how the United States could contribute to the creation of a government trusted by the Afghan people. Particularly after elections so blatantly rigged in favor of President Hamid Karzai that the much-criticized presidential vote in neighboring Iran a few months earlier looks like ballot stuffers’ amateur hour in comparison.

Afghanistan ranks 176 (out of 180) on an international index on corruption compiled annually by Transparency International, a corruption watchdog based in Berlin. The bleak assessment the top military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, sent to Obama, referred to the dilemma that poses.

“The weakness of state institutions, malign actions by power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials … have given Afghans little reason to support their government. This crisis of confidence has created fertile ground for the insurgency.”

Catch-22 for the United States and its NATO allies if Afghanistan’s state remains weak?

Ballots from the disputed August elections are still being counted but Washington seems resigned to the prospect of having to deal with Karzai for another five years. It requires the willing suspension of disbelief to assume the next Karzai-led government would be different enough from the actual one to end the “crisis of confidence.”

“We … must ask whether we can succeed if our partner is weak and viewed with suspicion,” John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. The answer seems straightforward: probably not.

But after Obama declared Afghanistan a war of necessity and warned that losing it would put at risk “the safety of people around the world,” how much leverage do the United States and its NATO brothers-in-arms have on the government in Kabul? Cut aid? Set a withdrawal deadline? Shame corrupt officials with public disclosures?

The strategy reappraisal debate began in earnest in the last week of September with a video conference bringing together senior White House officials and General McChrystal. There won’t be a decision for weeks, according to the White House, and there may be more options than those that have been aired so far.

Apart from McChrystal’s “more troops and a significant change in strategy” plan, there are influential voices arguing the opposite – draw down forces in Afghanistan (now more than 100,000, two thirds of them American) and instead strike harder at al Qaeda across the border in Pakistan with missile strikes and special forces.

For Obama, there are Catch-22 elements in whatever he decides. If he goes for boosting forces for what is becoming an unpopular war and there is no significant progress by the time he is beginning to campaign for re-election, his chances of a second term in 2012 will probably be slim.

If he cuts down the U.S. presence and there is an attack on the United States that his political foes can blame him for, they are equally slim


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We taught militant islam to Afghani’s when they were fighting Russia. We supported militant islam when we backed Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. We support King Abdullah a militant islamic dictator in Saudi Arabia. We have double standards when it comes to Israel and every other nation in the area, Israel obviously jewish, so people who are against those double standards are going to be pushed further and further towards militant islam.

Now we see a christian nation invade, attack and/or occupy 3 islamic countries in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. So moderate Islams are going to be driven to militant extremist Islams because they’re sick of watching their families and friends be killed by people of different faith from another part of the world.

Anon, you’re a smart man, but people like you will never get it. You’re too entrenched in your beliefs. I hope that no matter what the odds, if a foreign country ever invades and occupies us here in the US that you and I would fight shoulder to shoulder rather than just rolling over and submitting like you want all the enemies of the US in the current world to do.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Mr Ham.

If America was invaded and occupied by a foreign power, you bet I would be up in arms. Hell, I would probably fight along side you.

But you know one thing I wouldn’t do? Get a car bomb and blow it up in the middle of Detroit, killing fifty innocent men, women and children. Would you?

Care to explain why this is happening in Afganistan and Iraq? Why islamic “freedom fighters” are killing innocent civilians with marketplace carbombs, and murdering people and burying them in mass graves?

I can’t really seem to get it. Being so entrenched in my beliefs and all that…

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive


I’m not defending car bombers and suicide bombers. It’s more of a religious thing, they think they’re killing infidels. Both the Bible and the Quran say to kill non-believers so when people are entrenched in those beliefs you’ll see them follow the words of their scripture.

Me being an atheist, i find those beliefs as crazy.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

As a fellow Athiest (albeit a right-wing, pro-military interventionist republican) I agree.

But you would think that as these innocent civilians are all muslim, they wouldn’t fit the criteria for being an infidel.

So why would a freedom fighter blow himself up in a market place, when there are no military targets around? Killing nobody but innocent men, women and children. All muslim?

It seems a bit confusing for a freedom fighter to focus one’s efforts on killing the “victims” of occupation.

Which is why I do not see it as the actions of resistance or freedom fighter group. It is the efforts of a small armed group, seeking to impose it’s will on the civilian population. And they will do whatever it takes to get control of those people, even if they have to kill them.

And this will only get worse if America pulls out of Iraq and Afganistan before they are stable. Just because peace supporters think its not our business anymore once we leave, won’t stop the countless deaths and suffering that will result if we pull out too early.

And that is why we need to stay for the moment. Because it is a peacekeeping operation. And the “peace” in those countries now is much better then what will happen if we cut and run.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Annon, I recommend reading “Fenian Fire: The British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria”
by Christy Campbell. It doesn’t explain how a theoretically religious fanatic blows up a theoretically fellow religious adherent, but it is a very interesting study in how the leadership of the supposed enemy is in cahoots with their supposed “enemy”. I don’t know if it is relevant to the current situation in Afghanistan or Iraq, but suspect it possibly, in an abstract way, is. It seems to be about money, power and manipulating public opinion.
Have a nice day!

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive


I’m different from the vast majority of the peace movement. I’m a constitutionalist, our founding fathers formed this country with a neutral foreign policy. We wouldn’t even intervene in the French Revolution even though without the French we would have no country.

Imagine the tax cuts that could be given to Americans if we stopped these wars, imagine how much more disposable income civilians and businesses would have if our military budget didn’t skyrocket every single year no matter what the party in control is. I’m a small government guy. I don’t understand how those of you with a party think our bureaucrats are complete idiots when it comes to healthcare but all of a sudden turn into geniuses when it comes to foreign policy and vice versa. It’s the same people making the judgement decisions.

I want your opinion on this. Do you think Bush, Pelosi, Cheney, Obama care about what’s best for you and me before they make their decisions in the middle east? Do you think they ask themselves “how can I help average joe american with our military”? Do you think your Republicans had us middle class americans in mind when they went to war with Iraq?

I guess just having watch government fail at everything from balancing budgets to delivering mail efficiently to not blowing up tankers in crowded markets just makes me a little more cynical of whether they know (or give a damn) about doing what’s right.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

“Do you think Bush, Pelosi, Cheney, Obama care about what’s best for you and me before they make their decisions in the middle east?”

Yes. Most certainly.

But the issue is that the job of a government is to consider the national interest. And that includes domestic, military, foreign, civil, legal and economic considerations.

So if you believe one of those considerations takes priority over everything else, it is understandable that you would be upset when the overall direction of the nation does not comply with your priority.

Government has always been a balancing act of pragmatism. That is something the Obama government is beginning to learn right now. Something they shouldn’t have forgotten in the first place. But such is life.

One thing I disagree with is isolationism. A neutral diplomatic stance will not further American interests. Nor will it further Western interests, of which America is a central part.

Nor do I believe that abusive groups such as the Taliban or Saddam should be allowed to repress their own people. That doesn’t mean America has any moral right to be policeman. But at the same time, it doesn’t prevent us from doing as we please. Once again, pragmatism.

Were I taxed into oblivion in order to do this, I would probably think otherwise. But then I wouldn’t be thinking in an objective manner, would I?

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Make no mistake I’m not writing to defend the President because I’m a huge supporter…i would give any president this benefit of the doubt. I keep reading and hearing all the things that the president is suppose to be doing and isn’t and how he hasn’t done anyting. I think people forget this isn’t a monarchy. The president really doesn’t have absolute power to make things any way he wants…so when blame is to be cast it should also include the rest of congress that not getting things done as well…The president is our leader but don’t forget how our government really operates. It is designed specifically to deterr one man or woman from having complete power. So it confuses me to hear the inconsistant criticism of the presidents. I can still remember the chastizing the last president took for doing thge opposite of Obama and trying to “go it alone”. Criticism is not nessesarily a bad thing, but when you put someone in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation there aren’t any winners.

Posted by The Ring | Report as abusive

@ the Ring.

You are absolutely right. America isn’t a monarchy, and the President is not all powerful. This means that the President does not always have the ability to make massive sweeping changes.

Unfortunately, this is the image that Obama presented to the public during his election. He made very few promises. But he carefully cultivated the image of a political messiah, who was ready to take America to the promised land.

And for creating such an image, he can not then turn around and pretend he didn’t. America will expect him to make practical action, or they will start to take a dim view of how he used image to win the election.

Posted by Hmmm | Report as abusive