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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

President Obama sailed into office on a presumption that he might exercise the American equivalent of parliamentary supremacy – namely, that he would not be bound by the evident mistakes and convolutions of the preceding regime. Having surrendered the moral high ground in favor of the bipartisan slough that spawns patently false alternatives, all he’s done on healthcare, and grotesque platitudes such as “war of necessity” – the Catch-22 Obama now faces is entirely of his own making.

Will he confront it? That is the question.

Forgetting the interests of those who profit from war, the longer he remains indecisively embedded in Asia Minor, the worse things get for Obama in the eyes of the world. There’s no reason to be waging war there at all, period.

He could always do the right thing in Afghanistan and Iraq, and get out. To which there is zero downside. He has the power to do this, but if he fails to exercise it, there will be zero upside. If he can’t handle this, for the sake of America and the World, he needs to leave office.

With due respect, that’s no Catch-22. It’s what has to happen.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

And if he boosts forces yet there is still an attack on the United States, what then? The Catch-22 continues and he doesn’t get re-elected…. or… the country unites like it did the last time that happened?

Posted by G. Cook | Report as abusive

I may have missed some information along the way, but I don’t understand the issue with Afghnaistan and the Taliban. If the Taliban support themselves with the opium trade, why aren’t we just burning all the opium fields? I would think they would be easy to spot in Afghanistan – they are basically plantations. It seems that if you cannot outlast your enemy in combat, you must have a siege. The best way I can imagine to hurt the growth of the Taliban and destroy their morale would be to remove their supply lines and their funding any way possible. I have heard mention of the opium fields, but it seems that they would be a priority target. Unless, of course, the USA depends too much on the opium production to continue our own war on drugs at home… It just seems that the whole affair in Afghanistan is a PR effort to make it look like we are serious about stopping the Taliban when we really aren’t. They’ve been great business for us for 8 years now. The Department of Peace is busily working away….

Posted by James | Report as abusive

Obama isn’t the victim of a catch 22 with Afghanistan. We are the victims of a bait-n-switch. Obama got what he wanted from Afghanistan — elected.

As Krauthammer pointed out, claiming that the real war was in Afghanistan was a way for Obama to bash Bush for being ‘off-mission’ in Iraq and rally support for his presidential candidacy without actually standing up to Bush and actively curtailing US involvement in Iraq. And Obama had a lot of company doing that among the democrats, and in 2008 he suckered enough votes from the middle with that bait-n-switch routine to win the presidential election.

Now, President Obama is expecting McChrystal to pull off everything Candidate Obama promised during the election campaign regarding Afghanistan AT NO ADDITIONAL COST, even though such is a no-win proposition. McChrystal can’t, even with more troops and funding — and that’s no skin off Obama’s nose.

From the standpoint of US interests re: Afghanistan: The toppling of the Taliban gov’t back in late 2001 was as good as it gets. Obama knew Karzai was a crook before 20 August. Now Karzai is the prime beneficiary of Obama’s bait-n-switch. There’s no mystery in what will happen next, watch while President Obama backpedals from what Candidate Obama duplicitously promised to bring about in Afghanistan, to where he emulates Bush’s limited Afghan strategy. And that will be spun as Bush’s fault yet again.

Obama is President Heads-I-win-tails-you-lose.

Posted by dom youngross | Report as abusive

Catch-22 or not, Obama is going to have to make a decision. This is what happens to a country that can’t stop it’s meddling. America is not the new Israel and we are not the new Israelites sent by God to spread the gospel of Americanism to all the world. Spain, France, Italy, England, and Germany tried to rule the world and failed. America is destined for the same fate if it doesn’t withdraw all troops from every country,stop selling arms to warring nations, and quit supporting Israel.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

“Spain, France, Italy, England, and Germany tried to rule the world and failed. America is destined for the same fate”

What? Realising they can’t do it alone, and uniting into a collective regional organisation with the largest combined economic power on the planet?

If America goes the same way, the West will soon form the first Hyperpower.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

For this Catch-22 I would blame Bush Jr. He blew at least 2 chances to resolve Afghan issue once and for all. The first and best one was on 10/11/2001. If on that day he turned Afghanistan into a pile of radioactive dust, not one civilized leader would have had a word against it, everyone would understand. A couple of weeks later it was too late.
The second best chance was when Taliban was toppled. He should have installed a dictator – preferably former monarch, or his heir, or (lacking previous options) his N times removed nephew – in short, anyone who could be sold to tribal leaders as legit monarch. Keep troops there long enough for the new boss to hang/behead/skin alive most of his opponents, and then withdraw, leaving the new ruler to his own devices.
The state-building exercise was doomed as soon as it began. The population there needs no democracy, they don’t know what it is, how to use it, and what for. It’s against their ethnic and religious practice. Lacking the Emir, Khan, or what’s-the-title, they turn to Taliban – at least these speak in familiar Islamic terms.
Now BHO has not many choices. Either abandon his promises to wind things down and bring our boys home, or abandon “democratically elected” leaders. Both choices will cost votes in 2012. Even sooner, in 2010 – each vote against BHO will turn into a vote for GOP, no matter who actually runs.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Dom Youngross has it right. Among the many ironies is that Obama called Gen Petraus’ idea for a surge in Iraq “like pouring gasoline on a fire.” He and other dems like Biden said we had to declare defeat, get out, and watch Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq butcher millions–Shiites, Kurds, and those Sunnis who had supported us. It would have made the early-1970′s mass slaughter of the friends we abandoned in South Vietnam and Cambodia look tame in comparison. But the inconvenient truth for BHO is Gen Petraus’ strategy worked in Iraq. We’re well on the way to leaving that country as victors, with a moderately friendly government in place rather than the nightmare that was Saddam Hussein and his sons. Gen McChrystal has the same playbook for prevailing in counterinsurgency that Gen Petraus helped write. BHO the candidate was either naive or was disingenuous and said things he didn’t believe simply because he knew it would help him get elected. For our country’s sake, I hope he’s humble enough to admit he had it wrong on the Iraq surge and apply those lessons to Afghanistan.

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

With all due respect, I thought the assault on Iraq was the primary outcome of the ‘Sept. 11 mass murder of 3,000 people in Manhattan and Washington’ and Afghanistan the secondary outcome. Catch 22 arguments, to me, is a cop-out. There has been a fair amount of columns on this topic lately. There are so many contradictions and changes in direction that simply cause the loss of credibility. James: good perspective and transparency. Mufaso: your comment is harsh but carries validity – to me it is inconceivable to carry a grudge against my family and brothers. The Abrahamites that live along the river Jordan and its vicinity should realize that family, sisters and brothers are dependent on each other and best friends and work together. There has been Plans A-C. What to we do when we reach Plan Z ? Without repeating myself, the warfare is conducted in a separate reality, it is not guerilla, it is not conventional, it’s not a drone war, it’s a desert war and the West stands no chance. The West should also start counting it’s pennies in these lean times. Then there is the loss of life, but no one seems to care about that one ? How many opinionists and politicians have actually been on the battle front, is this just a computer game at a cowardly distance ? By the same token, it should not be ‘Cut and run’, but a sensible, but rapid withdrawal from ‘meddling’ in the affairs of others. There is a lot of oil and energy in Africa and Canada.

Posted by ANON | Report as abusive

…sorry, I meant a desert war in mountains and vice versa.

Posted by ANON | Report as abusive

ANON: re “With all due respect, I thought the assault on Iraq was the primary outcome of the ‘Sept. 11 mass murder of 3,000 people in Manhattan and Washington’ and Afghanistan the secondary outcome.”

That sentence highlights the enormous power of government propaganda. No, the assault on Iraq was NOT the primary outcome of Sept. 11. Iraq and Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with that. But Bush himself and his administration officials, chief of them Dick Cheney, mentioned Sept. 11 and Iraq so often in the same breath (without actually blaming Iraq) that many people thought they were connected. You are not alone in your ignorance: at one point, some 60% of the population thought there was a link between Sept. 11 and Iraq.

The war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, i.e. some three weeks after Sept. 11 and the stated aim was to remove the Taliban regime for having given a safe haven to al Qaeda, to find Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” and to destroy the al Qaeda network. Bush, before the attack, stated the the U.S. would make no difference between terrorist organizations and governments that harbor them.

The war in Iraq began on March 20, 2003 (note 2003) and the stated reason was Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States. So, your statement on the “primary outcome” is 100% wrong.

Posted by Elvira | Report as abusive

Remember “Charlie Wilson’s War”. This is Barack Ob ama’s War. Why are we there and are prepared to have U.S. soldiers killed to have democracy in Afganistan?. No kidding. Ask the Russians if you can win a war in Afghanistan. Let them fight it among themselves and stay out.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

I’m still laughing at the author’s need to share the actual definition of Catch 22. What Obama’s facing, however, is not a Catch 22. A Catch 22 is a “damned if I do, Damned if I don’t” issue, or a “between a rock and a hard place”. Obama’s issues don’t quite fit the definition unless you compare it to the kid on trial for killing his own parents who pleads with the court for mercy since he is now an orphan. That is not a Catch 22.

Regardless, I was a supporter of the war for a long time until the constitutions of both Afghanistan and Iraq were put in place. Both of their constitutions are Sharia law constitutions which means, of course, that it really doesn’t matter a whit which Afghan tribal leader holds office. Taliban is Sharia. Kharzi will follow sharia. Now it’s just a matter of tribal feudalism. Before, we were able to claim there’s a good guy. Now it’s clear there are no good guys, there is sharia law. Sharia law is 7th century barbaric tribalism codified in law.

It does not matter who enforces it since it’s in their codes and these laws are no longer debatable. They were approved by all and it’s just a matter of who will be enforcing them.

So, that’s the main issue. And, this would allow Obama to save face, too. He could actually say, “hey I never would have approved Sharia law and it was approved by the last administration. Sharia law is the antithesis of freedom and democracy so we are pulling out”. Or, he could insist on re=writing that constitution to have it mirror our wonderful document in the US.

Now, since Obama has supported sharia law in the past (he went to Kenya to campaign for his cousin, raila odinga who promised the muslim minority he would bring in sharia law to Kenya), and for the fact Obama seems to be a huge arab/muslim apologist, I doubt we’ll actually see either of those choices occur.

Wow, though. If he did, he would completely show his strength and fortitude. He’d be a President to admire. He’s not, though. And, he won’t be, though. He’s an American hating leftist who wishes to undermine the integrity of America.

Posted by kelly | Report as abusive

Why should Afghanistan accept a government imposed by …Us?

And how DO you go about IMPOSING a democratic government?

You DON’T, do you? And We haven’t, have we?

So, when do we get to stop trying?

Catch – 22 ? No. This situation is a lot more direct. You can’t go home without going home.

As for Al Ciada… Have Y’ever SEEN one? Why not? How long are you going to insist I respect your fear of an imaginary enemy?

That ain’t a Catch – 22, either. I am out of patience. I am calling all of you “TERRIFIED PEOPLE” what you really are . You are COWARDS. You have set fire to the one thing that can protect you, your Constitution, in order to warm your chilled soul with the smokescreen of burning freedom for the sake of a pretence of safety.

I am disgusted.

Posted by Frosted Flake | Report as abusive

What’s the catch 22? What’s the upside to expanding warmongering in Afghanistan?

Let’s run through this:

A.) Increase troops and up the bombing
1.) That’ll kill a lot of innocent civilians, making the population hate us even more.
2.) After they turn on us they’ll turn to the America haters, the Taliban, giving them even more power than they do now.
3.) It’ll cost mainstream America a lot in taxes and lives.

B.) Complete troop withdrawel
1.) Won’t affect their gov’t, it’s a puppet trash government the people don’t trust anyways.
2.) Less dead civilians by American hands, less hate for America.
3.) Can be used as a tax cut and less dead American soldiers.

Obama has already proven to be a Bush-replica hellbent on warmongering and nationbuilding as he’s shown in Iraq/Pakistan/Iran, so I’m sure he’ll go with option A.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

-How do you impose a democratic government?

You remove the non-democratic government (taliban) and you allow the people to form their own government.

-Why do we need a troop surge?

Because the weakness of insurgency is their low numbers and inability to hold ground in the face of conventional resistance. Large numbers of soldiers are needed to secure areas. This means that as areas are secured, the taliban become more vulnerable when attacking.

-How long do we need to do this?

Until the Afgani government has an army large enough to control large areas of land. Possibly with tribal militia as support.

-Do the Afgani people support the taliban?

Only an idiot would believe that an Afgani civilian actually wants to be ruled by a violent theocratic islamic dictatorship. Where the civilians support the Taliban, it is at the barrel of a gun.

And many taliban fighters are actually jihadists from other nations. As a rule, native freedom fighters tend to avoid killing their own people. Whereas the taliban is willing to commit atrocities on Afgani civilians.

-Why can’t we pull out?

It is not time. If we pull out now, the taliban will easily regain control of Afganistan. This will have serious problems for Pakistan, which has had a growing insurgency problem for some time.

It will also cause the Afgani people to be subjected to decades of suffering and repression under Taliban rule. Many thousands will be beaten and killed, just as the Taliban do now.

In addition, the Taliban will get a major propaganda boost for default victory. Many of the foreign fighters now fighting in Afganistan will then move on to another area, such as Pakistan or Central Asia.

For some reason, peace protesters fail to see that even running away from an enemy can still lead to dire consequences for innocent people.

I believe this is because they focus on the short term, and have an inability to consider the long term consequences of their ideas. But nobody’s perfect.

Posted by Hmmmm | Report as abusive

The arrogance and the stupidity of our leaders are the reasons why we Americans are hated around the world. Osama Bin Laden is still alive and powerful. So, what was the point in destroying Afghanistan?

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive

A simple solution: Live and let live. Let’s get out of Afghanistan while we still can. I agree with Anon. It seems like Europe and the other white majority countries think that it is their god given right to colonize and police the rest of the non-white world. The day will come when many non-white nations will have the same destructive power that white countries have now. What if one of those countries decide to take revenge on us? We need to change our foreign policy and get rid of our arrogant leaders.

Posted by Grand Jury | Report as abusive

Bernd, Vietnam lasted from 1963-1975 which would make it a 12 year war. American advisors entered the conflict in 63 to train and assist the South Vietnamese.

Posted by buddy | Report as abusive

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan we knew that they are Afghans, now we call them “insurgents”, but the bottom line is that we are also fighting the Afghan people.
I just read the book by Rory Stewart, mentioned in this article, its called The Places In Between and describes his walk across Afghanstan in 2002.
If you read it you might understand better what is going on there, its a good read!
They have a culture and a political system that is 2000 years old which we are trying to change, perhaps that wont work!

Posted by jean delarue | Report as abusive