Afghanistan isn’t a popular place to be fighting any more. Americans who tend to vote Democratic never liked it in the first place. Americans who tend to vote Republican aren’t all that interested, now that the war is being fought on the watch of a commander in chief named Barack Obama. But, the war is being fought by a volunteer army, which means that most Americans, those with better options, aren’t on the front lines anyway. So it is not a really emotional issue for anyone. The loud screaming is all about issues, and delusions, much closer to home.
There is a history to why we are in Afghanistan now. That history needs to be carefully examined before anyone commits our nation irrevocably to either “staying the course” or getting out now. We should do one or the other. We should not muddle along, with half an eye on staying the course, and half an eye on getting out.
When we first went into Afghanistan, it was in direct response to the planes hijacked and crashed into buildings on September 11, 2001. The organization that planned and directed those operations was openly situated in Afghanistan, with the permission and support of the government then in power.
Smashing the Taliban was a relatively easy operation. It was not exactly like invading a hostile country, where everyone was our enemy. The Taliban had been relatively popular when they took power, because they ended the capricious, violent rule of a series of warlords who freely raped and robbed the population. But, they had worn out their welcome, imposing rules most people didn’t really care for, with their own style of brutality.
Better luck for the USA, on the northern borders of Afghanistan was a substantial army, veterans of thirty years of continuous warfare, who knew the country, and were the sworn enemies of the Taliban. All they needed was for a nice superpower to provide them with a good supply of arms and ammunition, tactical air cover, and some special operations ground forces to clear the way. Our interests coincided for the moment, and the Taliban government was history.
After that, almost everything went wrong. It has long been a mantra of Democratic Party politics that we should have focused on Afghanistan, where the real enemy was, rather than getting distracted in Iraq. That is true as far as it goes. Iraq was a distraction from the battle against al-Qaeda. Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator from central casting, but he and Osama bin-Laden were sworn enemies. The best bin-Laden had to say of him, when the U.S. did invade Iraq, was “we will support the socialists against the Americans, even though we know they are apostates.” If bin-Laden had set foot in Iraq, Hussein would have drilled him between the eyes without a trial.
More important, if we had stayed focused on Afghanistan, the Taliban might not have survived in sufficient strength to re-establish itself as a power in Pakistan. We might have decimated the entire al-Qaeda leadership. Our president and secretary of defense did drop the ball, in their eagerness to run invade Iraq.
There is another reason Democrats have harped for the past five years on the importance of winning the war in Afghanistan. Democrats have to establish their street cred on national security. They can’t win national elections, or congressional majorities, as the party of peace, love and brotherhood. They have to show that they can fight America’s enemies too, but they are smarter about who to fight and how to go about it.
But now there is a question, is continuing to fight in Afghanistan a smart thing to do?
If we are there to support and sustain the government of Afghanistan, or to bring democracy to the people of Afghanistan, the answer is no, it is not a smart thing to do. The present government of Afghanistan is not worthy of the sacrifices of money, much less of blood, being made in that country by the U.S. military. It is a corrupt alliance of warlords, operating in a centuries old pattern of tribal and clan loyalties. The president’s brother most likely is a major drug dealer, although nobody can confirm that.
On the other hand, if the U.S. pulls out, the Taliban stands a good chance of taking control of the country again, or at least, it remains a power on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The government of Pakistan, already weak, becomes even weaker. The chances of a nuclear-armed al-Qaeda rise sharply. It may be in our own vital interest to fight this war out, even though our allies are nothing to boast of.
If there is good cause to remain, the next question is, can we win? What constitutes “winning” anyway? Can we grind down the Taliban and al-Qaeda until they are a negligible force in the world, with little capacity to do us harm? Can we do that without alienating the entire population of Afghanistan, making our troops out to be a foreign occupying power? (If we can’t, we will in the end strengthen al-Qaeda in the region, rather than destroying it.) Can we distinguish ourselves, in the popular eye, from the corrupt government that took power under our protective wing?
It boils down to, can General McChrystal pull off a successful counter-insurgency operation, winning the hearts and minds of a civilian population, that hates the memory of Taliban rule, and hates the operation of the current government, with which we are formally allied? That is a tough call, and nobody should rush to say they have the final answer.
The generals who commanded American troops in Vietnam knew all about how to win World War II, and nothing about how to fight a guerilla army that had the support of a large portion of the people we were there to “liberate.” Fighting yesterday’s war today is not the road to victory. It would be a mistake for those who understand how wrong we were in Vietnam to launch a peace movement now. Opposing yesterday’s war today is not the road to peace and brotherhood.
What we may have in Afghanistan is a war we must win, against an enemy we must fight, at the side of a government we should not support, resting on a federation of warlords who will flip sides three times a year if they find it in their own interest, in the midst of a civilian population that views our troops more favorably than their own local police, but isn’t sure they can trust us either, since we have to work with the powers that exist in the region… and Pakistan is looking like more of the same every day. So let’s cool the slogans, and give President Obama some room to think about all this.