Monday, July 12, 2010

Uncertainty in Afghanistan

I’m no longer certain that we’re doing the right thing in Afghanistan. For the past nine years, I’ve supported an American-led nation-building project there on the premise that failed states were incubators of terrorists and other enemies of democracy. Now I’m not so sure.

After 9/11, President Bush did precisely the right thing in deposing the evil Taliban regime and chasing its al Qaeda allies out of the cities. That decisive action devastated the terrorist network and probably did much to keep us safe. The most important question now, however, is whether we can expect to go beyond that security success to establish a functioning civil society in the long-troubled land. And if we can, at what cost and to what end?

Certainly, well functioning, peaceful societies are preferable to illiberal, threatening regimes. And Afghanistan’s proximity to Pakistan, that nuclear-armed Islamic nation with its own Taliban and al Qaeda insurrectionists, makes the country more important to American security interests than other failed states. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that there’s much we can do to develop and reform Afghanistan under current military and economic circumstances. NATO has proven to be a hollow organization where Europe is not directly threatened – and as European dithering during the Balkan crises of the 1990s showed, the organization is weak even on its own soil. The project in Afghanistan, then, is an almost exclusively American effort.

Meanwhile, the strategically more important effort in Iraq necessarily consumes more American attention and resources. Iraq has superior existing infrastructure, fewer competing tribes to reconcile, greater potential wealth to fund development, and a well-establish secular tradition. The fact that Iraq is overwhelmingly Arab also makes it more important as a potential example of democracy for the people of Egypt, Syria and the Gulf States. Then there’s oil. Having that precious commodity makes Iraq important in the global economy in a way Afghanistan simply is not. Whether you’re a neo-con hoping to plant democracy in the heart of the Middle East, or a policy realist who just wants to manipulate the levers of power and wealth, Iraq is far and away more critical to your agenda – and to America’s.

So if we can’t leave Iraq to win the supposedly “good war” (according to President Obama) in Afghanistan, what do we do? Hamid Karzai and his corrupt friends and relatives stunt internal civil development, and we don’t have the troops or money to impose a large-scale solution from the outside. More and more, I’m beginning to think maybe the best we can do is to establish Taliban-free zones in the north and around Kabul. Such retrenchment would require fewer troops and less money, and would reduce combat losses. With well armed and organized forces occupying a smaller footprint in-country, we would still be able to execute lethal campaigns against Taliban and al Qaeda forces whenever they pop up.

At present, though, we seem to be pursuing the worst possible strategy – “surging” to a troop level that remains insufficient to actually succeed in a strategy that may be too ambitious. The result is more dead Americans for no clear benefit to our country. That truly is unsustainable.