According to the weekly news index from Pew Research, Afghanistan has become the focus of both old and new media – at least until some cute video of a pet or a baby starts circulating or some reality show contestant starts complaining, at which point new media will take a sharp detour. I’ve been hesitant to blog about international affairs recently. So many people do it so much better (see Steve Clemons’ Washington Note) and what can I add? Or perhaps I should say: where’s the challenge? How hard is it to criticize a policy in flux? Like shooting fish in a barrel – one of my least favorite images, by the way, as it manages to encompass both cruelty and an excessive use of firepower to prove a point.
Still, I’m going to toss in my two cents, though I risk pointing out the obvious, over-simplifying the situation, and boring my readers to tears. We all need to be at least superficially up to speed before we can determine, not only what we want our country to do in Afghanistan, but also why we always seem to end up in these positions.
QUICK AND SIMPLE HISTORY UPDATE
Afghanistan is a country with a complex history. Landlocked, the area has been at the crossroads of competing eastern and western, religious and secular empires for centuries. For the last thirty years, it has been in a continuous state of civil war. In the late seventies, the secular government in Afghanistan was also viewed as pro-Soviet. The U.S. Cold War strategy at the time was to covertly support the “other” side in order to counter Soviet influence in the Persian gulf. In the case of Afghanistan, our support went to a loose but ideologically conservative coalition of religious leaders and tribal leaders – the mujahideen. The Soviets then countered with an invasion to shore up their friends in the government, the United States began to arm the anti-communist factions (which also received aid from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and a horrible civil was broke out in which between half a million and two million Afghan citizens were killed. You can check at any one of dozens of sites on Afghan recent history (even Wikipedia is more or less up to date) or you can watch the infinitely enjoyable “Charlie Wilson’s War” starring Tom Hanks, Philip Hoffman Seymour and Julia Roberts. I leave it to you.
Although the United States may have assumed an ideological victory (as Charlie Wilson never did), it became clear, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that we might have backed the wrong horse. The Taliban wreaked havoc on the citizenry in its zeal to bring everyone in line with the supposed dictates of a particular brand of fundamentalism, resulting in not only a mass exodus of intellectuals but also a repressive regime that removed freedoms, violates human rights and reduced women to second-class citizens.
OUR POST 9/11 WAR
The United States’ activities in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks were called “Operation Enduring Freedom” a military campaign to destroy presumed Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. The U.S. also sought to overthrow the Taliban government because they were presumably harboring Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members, although documents show that Washington was giving the Northern Alliance information and logistics support as part of concerted action with India, Iran, and Russia – that would be our current adversary and our former one. The Taliban was ousted, the secular leader Hamid Karzai was made the transitional chairman of the newly installed government, then became president in 2004.
In a few words: Taliban resurgence, particularly in the countryside, an spike in illegal drug activity, corruption charges against the present government currently enjoying U.S. largesse, voting fraud and human rights violations still occurring and the Afghan people – and our foreign policy – once again caught between a rock and a hard place. The Afghan government is neither reliable nor trusted by the people. The extent of our ability to force change appears limited. Even Joe Biden is dismayed. What we have is money to withhold and manpower to withdraw. We can just say no, or as Tom Friedman suggested in his NY Times op-ed piece, tell the government to shape up or we ship out. And do it.
We might also consider asking (or demanding or forcing) our own strategic thinkers to get to work redefining their own terminology with respect to our policy in Afghanistan and indeed around the world. What does it mean to choose sides? What does a victory look like? How do we propose to battle an ideology? What do we think will make the United States safe, what with poorly protected facilities, ill-defined immigration policies, poor follow-up for visas and other home protection issues that need attention? Can we say we’ve seriously considered a wholesale revamping of our foreign policy and military approaches to make those approaches at once more robust and more practical?
Or shall we continue as always, with an either/or, add more, subtract more, we won/we lost mentality? Shall we continue to send our troops into harm’s way while our leaders dither about what a sustainable foreign policy in the twenty-first century looks like and the rest of us dither about whatever it’s easiest to absorb?
That seems almost too easy – like shooting fish in a barrel.
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