Saturday, March 21, 2009

Still Again Into the Breach

Another story about strategy in Afghanistan leaves me still wondering why the United States is fighting a war there. If I recall, we attacked Afghanistan to drive destroy al-Qaeda and replace the Taliban government that gave Osama bin Laden a sanctuary. We oppose al-Qaeda because they attacked Americans in 1993, 1998, 2000 and most spectacularly, 2001. We succeeded in toppling the Taliban government, with whom we had been content to deal, and forced bin Laden and AQ headquarters into hiding in the Pashtun homeland that straddles the Afganistan-Pakistan border.

That was then. What the US has not done is provide a government that has legitimacy with the majority of Afghans. The primary reason for this failure is the simple reason that only Afghans can provide a legitimate government. The structures and leaders who have ascended to leadership in Afghanistan during the American occupation have limited credibility and compete (often unfavorably) with warlords and a resurgent Taliban for the loyalty of people who simply want to make a living in the place they call home.

So here we are, seven years later, looking at an occupation that has no end and the very real prospect of further draining our shaky economy. And I am still asking “Why?” We took out al-Qaeda HQ only to learn that a decentralized, clandestine network can metastasize and continue its deadly work in the absence of any top leadership. For all of our efforts in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is still out there, still dangerous but is also not a threat that poses the kind of existential threat to the United States that calls for endless war.

American policy in Afghanistan is certainly part nation building—the idea that we must create a stable nation that will not harbor our enemies. Seven years on, billions of dollars and many thousand Afghan casualties, we have probably created more hostility toward the US among Afghanis than al-Qaeda could ever hope for. Afghans who welcomed the American overthrow of the Taliban now support Taliban fighters as indigenous nationalists and the one organization that can provide effective, if brutal, security.

In the end, then, Americans are fighting Afghans who do not support the government we installed. Why is it that America has any right to tell Afghanis what and what is not a legitimate government?. After all, we subscribe to the idea that government derives its power from the consent of the people. Afghanis have clearly withheld their consent so why is it that our troops, bullets and bombs have any role in that political process?

Oh but Afghanis are intimidated by the Taliban, you say. Their acquiescence is merely acceptance; they would willingly embrace real democracy if only given the chance. Simply leaving them at the mercy of the strongest guns denies them their unalienable rights as human beings. Besides, look at what they do to women and girls, denying them education and forcing them into a male-dominated semi-existence. Surely, Americans cannot simply withdraw, leaving Afghanis stuck in the 15th century.

This line of reasoning is the same specious logic that sent and kept America in Vietnam for almost 30 years (I count from the day the US agreed to allow the French to re-occupy their former colony after WWII). We conflate two equally unachievable missions—a stable, pro-western government and individual personal liberty—into a “noble cause” that is not necessarily consistent with local traditions and preferences. It is indeed a recipe for endless war. And endless war is what we will get, to no one’s benefit except the military contractors and the local elites whom we purchase with our largesse and ability to neutralize their competitors.

If I were in charge, I would leave Afghanistan to the Afghans. Only they can sort out their differences. Only they have the legitimacy to create their own government. Our military has no legitimate role in that process. Our legitimacy lies in the force of our ideas and our technical skills—“30,000 engineers and scholars instead of 30,000 troops” in the words of one Afghani. Afghani self-determination may be ugly and Afghan women may be a long time (if ever) in finding liberation, all unfortunate but all outside of the United States or any outside nation to control or dictate. Seven years of war should have taught us that lesson.

The real threat to the US and the rest of the world in that area is Pakistan with its nuclear arsenal, increasingly anti-American population and growing Islamic radicalism. Like Afghanis, Pakistanis have seen their nation played as a pawn in the Great Games of major powers, to their own detriment. That hostility does not diminish with American attacks inside Pakistan. Nor are we likely to send troops to “stabilize” that nation. (It would be a bad idea even if we could afford it). The threat is much larger than Afghanistan—it’s regional and involves nuclear armed nations. Simply sending more troops to Afghanistan does nothing to address that threat. Sending more troops and escalating our covert war in Pakistan is a recipe for endless war.

Apparently we prefer it that way.