Last year, I agreed with Barack Obama when he argued that Iraq was a war of choice and Afghanistan a war of necessity. Afghanistan, after all, was where al Qaeda had based in 2001, and its agents were still centered close to the Afghan-Pakistan border.
But things had changed by then, and they have changed more since, and the changes have not been good.
Indeed, just now we are faced with what, to us liberals, is an almost unimaginable situation: from present indications, the unnecessary, imperialistic war in Iraq is likely to have a better outcome than the justified conflict in Afghanistan.
What happened? Principally, we lost the battle of time. As is widely known, due to Bush's bungling and incompetence, we let bin Laden and his minions escape from a trap at Tora Bora, to escape to Pakistan. The US was then unwilling or unable to get the Pakistanis to round up the remnants of al Qaeda before they could reorganize, and remnants of their Taliban allies were allowed to obtain safe haven across the virtually invisible border. To the apparent surprise of American officials--and those in the Afghan government, apparently--the Taliban did not accept their defeat or even marginalization, but started a new struggle to return to power. For a long time, American and Afghan officials compounded their errors by all but ignoring the new insurgency.
The Taliban could not have revived their threat had the Afghan government showed minimal competence. It would have helped had the Bush administration kept its focus on Afghanistan and supplied copious amounts of development aid and attention to the development of an effective civil society. None of that happened, of course. Hundreds of billions of dollars went to Iraq and relatively little to Afghanistan. The early promise of 2001-02 faded. The Afghan regime failed to develop into an effective government; instead it descended into factionalism (not surprising given the country's intense tribalism) and corruption. Karzai, whom I had described as a treasure, turned out to be weak in developing a modern system and, although he may not be personally corrupt, increasingly tolerant of corruption among those around him.
So we have come to the point where the Taliban are resurgent and the US-backed government in Kabul an ineffective representative of tribal factions who are mainly motivated by profit and personal advantage. The last straw was the presidential election, in which rampant corruption overshadowed all else; although Karzai was expected to lead the first round, the wholesale vote stealing has robbed him of any legitimacy among those who do not support him (and probably among many who do). (A vision of what might have been came in some of the lower-ranked candidates--members of the political and educational elite--who stood for real reform and whose candidacies were motivated by patriotism rather than individual interest.)
Where to go from here? Tom Friedman says that General McChrystal's new plan for Afghanistan
involves additional troops to create something that does not now exist there — a reasonably noncorrupt Afghan state that will serve its people and partner with America in keeping Afghanistan free of drug lords, warlords, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His plan calls for clearing areas of Taliban control, holding those areas and then building effective local, district and provincial governments — along with a bigger army, real courts, police and public services.
If Friedman is right, the general is calling for the United States to replace the Afghan government in a substantial portion of the country--the portion in which the Taliban is strongest. Perhaps that would work, but it sounds like old-fashioned colonialism to me, and it didn't work in Afghanistan even when colonialism was in fashion. (Friedman does not subscribe to McChrystal's plan; he properly notes that it is such a substantial change in direction that it deserves a thorough debate.)
On the other side of the Times editorial page, Nicholas Kristoff describes "The Afghanistan (sic) Abyss." He relates the concerns of a group of American security and intelligence professionals with experience in Afghanistan (one the former CIA station chief in Kabul) who believe that we are heading for disaster. As these experts say, in a statement,
Our policy makers do not understand that the very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas is the problem. The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition. We do not mitigate the opposition by increasing troop levels, but rather we increase the opposition and prove to the Pashtuns that the Taliban are correct.
Kristoff's sources have much the better of the argument. Their logic not only accords with normal human experience, but particularly with Afghan experience.
Kristoff suggests not a precipitous withdrawal, but a lighter footprint: "[T]raining the Afghan forces and helping them hold major cities, and ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regroup. We must also invest more in education and agriculture development, for that is a way over time to peel Pashtuns away from the Taliban."
Such a change in policy would encounter ferocious resistance from the American right, even though George Will has said that we should simply withdraw from Afghanistan. The Republicans would undoubtedly smell blood in a chance to paint Obama as a wimp. It would require real political courage for the President to choose a course that would give the GOPhers such an opportunity.
Let's take a moment to think about what would happen if the US were to pull back in Afghanistan. We can keep the Taliban from controlling Kabul and the other major cities. We can give the Afghans a chance to build their own nation, free from Islamic radicalism. (Afghans traditionally followed moderate forms of their religion.) Our commitment, at a much lower level than it is now, would have to be long, and the eventual outcome highly uncertain; there is a high probability that the Afghans cannot, and perhaps do not want, what we consider an effective civil society.
On the other hand, what if we were to win in Afghanistan--whatever "winning" means? Would we eliminate the threat from al Qaeda that led us into the country to being with? No. Bin Laden and his cohorts have ong since moved on, and their movement has metastasized. In other words, we cannot achieve our original war aim. Is there, then, another goal that justifies a massive further investment of our blood and treasure? If you see one, let me know, because I don't.
(I'm going to stop here, even though I have hardly mentioned the threat and problem of Pakistan, which poses a much greater danger, and perhaps a greater challenge, than Afghanistan.)