There’s an old joke about an elderly man who’s asked if he thinks about an afterlife. “All the time,” he says. “I’m always walking into a room and asking myself, ‘Now, what am I hereafter?'”
The joke comes to mind with the debate over an Afghanistan troop surge and the recent resignation by foreign service official Matthew Hoh in protest over U.S. policy. The full letter is worth reading. But I was struck by one point in particular: “I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan. If honest, our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc.”
Hoh frames the issue exactly the way it needs to be discussed. What’s the point? It is upsetting to see in some of the media that much of the debate centers on tactics: what’s the right level of troop strength? Will they be able to “pacify” the populace (to resort to a Vietnam-era term)? Where should they be sent? But the real issues are more fundamental, and go to the matters that Matthew Hoh raised. As President Obama stood at attention on the tarmac at Dover Air Force base yesterday and saluted what the Pentagon refers to as “transfer cases” — 18 coffins carrying the remains of U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan — the questions hanging over the somber event were echoes of the old joke, but not so funny: What exactly is the mission? Does the strategy make any sense? What are we here after?