Squeezing the balloon

Remember when “we live in a world without borders” was a good thing? Now, in the places where tearing down or transcending borders was a matter of choice, as in global financial markets, leaders are now grappling with the massive challenges of regulating and even tracking cross-border capital flows and transactions. And in the places ...

587628_090319_83711564_REZ2.jpg
587628_090319_83711564_REZ2.jpg

Remember when "we live in a world without borders" was a good thing? Now, in the places where tearing down or transcending borders was a matter of choice, as in global financial markets, leaders are now grappling with the massive challenges of regulating and even tracking cross-border capital flows and transactions. And in the places where there are no borders as a consequence of history, geography, or the failure of the states that are supposed to maintain them, the problem is even bigger.

Nothing brings this problem into focus like Afghanistan. In a simplistic, substance-lite op-ed in the Washington Post, John McCain and Joseph Lieberman call it "Our Must Win War." They argue against "minimalism" in our approach to fighting in that country and worry aloud about "loose rhetoric" that will imply that "the United States will tire of this war and retreat." Quite apart from the obvious mistake of seeking to deny the deeply salient fact that inevitably we actually will tire of this war and retreat (or "strategically redeploy"), the article is as confused as is most of the thinking about this conflict. It sets as a goal "a stable, secure, self-governing Afghanistan that is not a terrorist sanctuary." Of course, we can't permanently assure Afghanistan's stability, security, or its self-governing status. We can try to help in those areas, but we haven't been terribly successful in that regard thus far and more importantly, those aren't actually our real objectives. Our real objective is simply to eliminate its use as a terrorist sanctuary and, not unimportantly, to get rid of some of the terrorists who actually remain there. 

Remember when “we live in a world without borders” was a good thing? Now, in the places where tearing down or transcending borders was a matter of choice, as in global financial markets, leaders are now grappling with the massive challenges of regulating and even tracking cross-border capital flows and transactions. And in the places where there are no borders as a consequence of history, geography, or the failure of the states that are supposed to maintain them, the problem is even bigger.

Nothing brings this problem into focus like Afghanistan. In a simplistic, substance-lite op-ed in the Washington Post, John McCain and Joseph Lieberman call it “Our Must Win War.” They argue against “minimalism” in our approach to fighting in that country and worry aloud about “loose rhetoric” that will imply that “the United States will tire of this war and retreat.” Quite apart from the obvious mistake of seeking to deny the deeply salient fact that inevitably we actually will tire of this war and retreat (or “strategically redeploy”), the article is as confused as is most of the thinking about this conflict. It sets as a goal “a stable, secure, self-governing Afghanistan that is not a terrorist sanctuary.” Of course, we can’t permanently assure Afghanistan’s stability, security, or its self-governing status. We can try to help in those areas, but we haven’t been terribly successful in that regard thus far and more importantly, those aren’t actually our real objectives. Our real objective is simply to eliminate its use as a terrorist sanctuary and, not unimportantly, to get rid of some of the terrorists who actually remain there. 

But here’s where borders come in. Afghanistan doesn’t really have a border with Pakistan. Not one that is patrolled or even enforceable. So every time we go after terrorists in Afghanistan, they attempt to cross into Pakistan and often they succeed. And while the Pakistanis are allegedly our allies, they often don’t push back. Indeed, in many mountainous parts of the border region, they can’t. So we are left squeezing the balloon — apply pressure here and the only result is that the problem moves over there.

With the rise in importance of conflicts with terrorists, war lords, tribal groups, and drug cartels within the not-so-confining confines of weak or failed states with porous borders, this issue has become a central problem for U.S. policy and for international security more broadly. The bad guys have used modern technologies to become more mobile and we end up in futile balloon-squeezing exercises worldwide. Success against rebels and drug cartels in Colombia create problems in Peru and Ecuador. What progress the Mexican government has made against drug cartels in that country is starting to produce dangerous spill-over into Guatemala and the United States. Permanent wars rage throughout Africa drifting across borders from Rwanda to Congo, through East and West Africa. 

Further, the wars produce refugee flows and are fed by drug and weapons flows. And if the richest nation in the world can’t secure our own borders, how will poor ones fix theirs? The choice is fairly simple: massive spending on infrastructure, technology, and manpower to close the borders and seal off the fights where they occur or finding another strategy…like limiting ourselves to achievable goals abroad and doing what we can to minimize international problems by reducing demand for drugs, the reasons for terror, hitting offenders hard and increasing security here at home and along our own borders.

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images   

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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