Thoughts on Afghanistan

We started out as warbloggers, largely, and over the years we’ve no doubt written more about the war against Islamic terrorism than anything else. So it’s a little disorienting to see the war in Iraq winding down, and the war in Afghanistan ramping up, without having a great deal to say about either conflict.
Will the war in Iraq be judged a success? Ask me in 20 years. While Doug Feith tells us the Department of Defense was never focused on bringing democracy to the Arab world, I’m pretty sure that was a big part of President Bush’s motivation, as it was of mine. I base this on the fact that Bush said so, repeatedly, in his speeches. Liberals either paid attention or didn’t, depending on how they evaluated their tactical interests at the moment.
As for Afghanistan, this is the kind of story that makes us want to take to the battlements: “Taliban take comfort in US withdrawal plans: general.”

Taliban insurgents have been given hope they can prevail in the war as a result of President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan , the top US Marine said. …
“In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance,” Conway said of the July 2011 target date.
“We think that he may be saying to himself — in fact we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’”

That’s red meat for us conservatives. Still, we have been in Afghanistan since, what–the end of 2001? It is understandable that most Americans want some sort of a resolution. I fully support our current “surge” efforts in Afghanistan, and I think it is a good thing whenever a Taliban fighter is killed. At the same time, it seems obvious that the primitiveness of Afghan society and the Afghan economy limit, rather severely, the results we can achieve there. On no account do we want the success of our policy to be held hostage to the sheer perversity of Afghan culture. Our soldiers are great at shooting bad people and blowing up their infrastructure, but bringing Islamic fundamentalists into the 10th century is beyond their ken. Or anyone’s.
At the American Interest, Peter Berger has a perceptive analysis of the options open to us in Afghanistan, titled “American National Interest and the Stoning of Women.” None of our options, he argues, is good.

As to the United States, it is certainly in its national interest to separate the Taliban from al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates–after all, this is why the American invasion of Afghanistan took place to begin with. It is doubtful whether the national interest means preventing executions by stoning or other traditional Islamic penalties–or for that matter the whole panoply of women’s rights as understood in Western democracies. …
It seems to me that the American national interest is unclear on the question of whether to stay in Afghanistan or to look for an exit as quickly as possible. There are reasonable arguments on both sides. On the one hand, an American exit which will be widely seen as a defeat would have potentially catastrophic consequences, not only on the international position of the United States, but in the wider Middle East and beyond–destabilizing Pakistan, encouraging radical Islamism everywhere, enhancing the power of Iran (more so, of course, if it develops atomic weapons)–and encouraging adversaries beyond the region, such as North Korea and Venezuela. On the other hand, Bob Herbert might be right that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and that it will require years, maybe decades, of a useless expenditure of lives and resources, which will serve to destabilize American society itself.
A realistic assessment of the costs and benefits of policy alternatives is one thing, a moral assessment quite another. …
Both critics and supporters of the war in Afghanistan bring up the Vietnam analogy–the critics by seeing Afghanistan as a comparable “quagmire,” the supporters by saying that the anti-war movement at home was the major cause of the American defeat. …
However, in a moral perspective, there is a disturbing similarity, brought out by the horror described in the opening section of this post: the departure of the United States from Vietnam in 1975 was probably in its national interest. It had some terrible consequences in the region–the brutal re-education camps in South Vietnam after its occupation by the North, the many deaths on the sea of the “boat people,” and, most terrible of all, the “auto-genocide” by the victorious Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. When all is said and done, are we once more going to abandon to their enemies those who trusted in us?
A very old insight has to be relearned many times–that one cannot act politically without getting one’s hands dirty, often enough with blood.

This put me in mind of probably the most searing post we’ve ever done here, by Scott, which tells the sad story of Sirik Matak, former Prime Minister of Cambodia, who made the mistake of trusting the United States government:

Dear Excellency and Friend:
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.
You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we are all born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you [the Americans].

Prime Minister Matak was shot and left to die by Communists. A worse fate awaits a great many Afghan women, and no small number of Afghan men, if we decide that we are tired of dealing with such a backward culture.

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