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Paul Rahe: Afghanistan: Butcher & bolt?

Hillsdale College Professor Paul Rahe’s first three books make up the trilogy Republics Ancient and Modern. His writes to comment on the choices confronting us in Afghanistan:

In the wake of 9/11, I wrote a post for National Review Online, in which I argued that Afghanistan was a red herring and suggested that getting us mired in that quagmire was a part of Osama bin Laden’s strategy.
Later, I had occasion — in another post on the same site — to acknowledge that

those of us who fretted that in turning first to Afghanistan we risked playing into the hands of our adversaries were proven quite fortunately wrong. We underestimated the scope of the military revolution that first became evident with our use of smart munitions in the Gulf War. We failed to understand just what havoc can be wreaked with such munitions in a terrain offering little in the way of natural cover. We misjudged Afghan animus against the Taliban and against Osama bin Laden’s foreign legion.

In that post, however, I erred in another fashion, arguing that, while “our forces may not have captured or killed the elusive mass murderer and his chief henchmen, . . . it is clear that, in time, they will. The leading figures within al Qaeda can run, but they cannot hide.”
I was at the time optimistic with regard to our capacity to establish a democracy in Iraq, and I remain cautiously optimistic now. Never, however, at any time did I contemplate the possibility that we could successfully establish a democratic polity of any sort in Afghanistan, and on that point I believe that I was right.
One of my former students was among those sent into Afghanistan early on. When he came back, I asked him what it was like, and he replied, “Time of Christ!” The phrase is not one I would have chosen. My sense had been that little had changed in Afghan mores and manners since Alexander the Great passed through, but his point was much the same.
In Iraq, I thought, the better part of the population lived in urban areas. In Iraq, there was a middle class. In Iraq, secularism had been a force. Afghanistan was a desperately impoverished, rural backwater in which a pre-modern ethos was predominant. And so it is.
Winston Churchill wrote and published The Story of the Malakand Field Force in the late 1890s. Although set across the border in what is now Pakistan, it captures better than any other work I know the character of the terrain in that part of the world and the ethos of the people. It also reveals something about the policy that the British tended to follow in dealing with what were called then and are called now the Northwest Territories.
Theirs was generally a policy of butcher and bolt. They made no concerted attempt to subdue the Pashtun who inhabited these lands. They oscillated, instead, between punitive military expeditions and diplomacy, using the former to support the latter and resorting to the former from time to time when the latter failed. It was a policy of containment, and in a rough and ready way it worked.
That is the policy that, I believe, the Bush administration should have followed. They should have begun, as they did, by butchering the Taliban. Than, they should have worked out a modus vivendi with those left alive, specifying that they would be left to their own devices if and only if they broke with Al Q’aeda and saw to their expulsion from Afghanistan.
In my judgment, that would have sufficed — at least for a time. But that policy was not followed. We attempted, instead, to found a government based on consent; we outstayed our welcome in a land notorious for xenophobia; and, as one could easily foresee, we eventually found ourselves in difficulties.
So should we now withdraw? That I believe we cannot now do — not, in any case, without suffering a serious blow to our prestige. I put that term in italics because I do not mean by it the respect that the successful enjoy in the private sphere. In international relations, it is prestige — the respect earned by powers that can be relied on to help their friends and harm their enemies — that keeps the wolf at bay.
Put simply, if we withdraw, we will do so — as we did in Vietnam — with our tail between our legs. Pusillanimity on our part will give rise to audacity in our enemies and panic in our erstwhile friends — especially in the Islamic world. In Pakistan, a nuclear power teetering on the edge of civil war, this could easily have disastrous consequences.
What alternative is there? The answer is the counter-insurgency strategy proposed by General Stanley McChrystal — which if pursued vigorously, will renew our reputation in and beyond Afghanistan as a power capable of helping our friends and harming our enemies.
Only when the latter have been driven from the field can we make a dignified withdrawal. Only then can we be halfway confident that Afghanistan will not anytime soon be made a staging ground for attacks on the United States. More than that, I am afraid, we cannot hope for.
I doubt that President Obama has the stomach for such a policy. He is now stuck between a rock and a hard place. He has called this “a necessary war”; he and his party ran for office on that platform. But the party base has more in common with Cindy Sheehan. As the polling data collected by Rasmussen Reports in 2004 and 2006 suggests, they blame American policy for 9/11; and Obama surely knows that they will turn on him if he ups the ante in Afghanistan.
Obama appears to think that he can get away with breaking his pledge not to introduce new taxes on the middle class. I doubt that he supposes that he can similarly displease his own party’s vociferous left. They took it for granted that he and the other party leaders were lying when they depicted the struggle in Afghanistan as the good war. They assumed — and with reason — that all of this was said with a knowing wink and a nod.
In the United States, however, it is always a mistake to base one’s campaign on a bald-faced lie. Sooner or later, one gets caught — and then there is a reckoning. Americans do not much like getting conned.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is the author, most recently, of Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

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