Afghanistan: What To Do?

Afghanistan is the war that hardly anyone dares oppose but about which, at the same time, not many people are actually enthusiastic. Iraq and Iran are both of great strategic importance by virtue of their size, their location, their natural resources, their history and their stage of development. Afghanistan is not in the same category. It borders Pakistan, to be sure, but otherwise its strategic importance has come mostly from the fact that, while no one was paying attention, the Taliban allowed al Qaeda training camps to flourish there. To say that most Afghans live in an earlier millenium is an understatement.
Not long ago I had dinner with a senior officer from Central Command who has been assigned to Afghanistan for a considerable time. His assessment was bleak: the country is so poor and so backward that trying to bring it into the modern world is, he thinks, a fool’s errand. In his view, the most we should do is keep drones flying overhead so that if Islamic terrorists start training in the open again, we can blow them up.
On the other hand, my friend Nate Fick, who has fought there, has been writing about the importance of Afghanistan in scholarly journals. As he explained it to me, his concern is less about any real strategic significance of Afghanistan than about the public relations setback if we are perceived as losing there.
Other long-time supporters of our government’s war against Islamic terrorism are strong advocates for our effort in Afghanistan. Yesterday I got an email from Pete Hegseth, leader of Vets for Freedom, a man I admire greatly. His email about Afghanistan included the following comments:

Yesterday reports surfaced of the possibility of US/UK talks with the Taliban. I wrote a quick post about it on NRO’s “The Corner” yesterday, but plan to dig much deeper. Reports like this–alongside domestic polls that show eroding support for the Afghan war and Presidential statements hinting at an exit strategy–are a troubling trend, as our troops seek to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan….
This morning the New York Times reports that the Iraq troop withdrawal could be accelerated. In a post at NRO, I ask the question–“Why not use the early drawdown in Iraq as an opportunity to quickly shift even more troops to Afghanistan?” Read post here:
As the fight intensifies in Afghanistan, VFF expects the domestic war debate to look a lot like the Iraq debate did in 2006-2007. This unfortunate reality gives great cause, and urgency, to our efforts to support this important mission.

I happily defer to Pete on all things military, but is it really true that “winning” in Afghanistan is as important, strategically, as winning in Iraq? Or in Iran? And is victory in Afghanistan possible, if victory is defined to include, not just the absence of radical terrorist training camps operating in plain sight, but also the Afghans entering the modern political world, something they may be centuries away from doing?
Michael Yon is one of the great war correspondents of our time. His latest dispatch from Afghanistan is excellent. With colorful prose and lots of pictures, he follows American [Oops, sorry, force of habit: this particular group of soldiers is British.] soldiers as they carry out a mission against the Taliban. Here is a typical photo, of a soldier trying to keep domestic animals from ruining an Afghan family’s garden:
Yon thinks that we need a new, more Afghan-friendly strategy in that country:

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Stanley McChrystal put sharp restrictions on the ROE (Rules of Engagement), which caused many armchair generals to throw tantrums that we are endangering our troops. (Years of loose ROE clearly did not work; during the cowboy years since 2001, Afghanistan got worse.)
Secretary Gates, General McChrystal and troops all over Afghanistan are making difficult decisions. Only time will reveal if McChrystal and crew can turn the war around. If our folks – the Coalition in general – can reverse the slide, they will deserve the same respect that was earned for the turn-around in Iraq.

He may turn out to be right. What gives me a sense of foreboding about Afghanistan, however, is no nuance of strategy. It is the long, sad history of that primitive corner of the world. I sincerely doubt that we can achieve in Afghanistan what we have achieved in Iraq, and may accomplish someday in Iran. Modernity, for Afghanistan, is centuries away.
Don’t get me wrong: we will support the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy wholeheartedly as long as it appears designed to advance our national interests. But I, personally, am concerned about whether our troops in Afghanistan are being asked to do the impossible, for no clearly articulated reason.


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