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Jewish World Review
August 21, 2009 / 1 Elul 5769
Can We Succeed in Afghanistan?
He was certainly brave, but was he crazy? That's what I wondered
when I picked up Rory Stewart's "The Places in Between," an account of the
Scotsman's 2002 solo walk across Afghanistan. That's right, he walked. Many
Afghans doubted he would survive the journey. Just weeks after the fall of
the Taliban, in the dead of winter, in some of the most remote and difficult
terrain in the inhabited world, he went from village to village on foot.
Relying on the tradition of hospitality, Stewart found welcome, sustenance,
and shelter (mostly, but not always) graciously offered by people who had
very little to share.
Stewart, a British Foreign Service officer, (he served in
southern Iraq after the Iraq War the subject of another good book, "The
Prince of the Marshes") and a Harvard professor, relied upon his knowledge
of Farsi and Urdu, his understanding of Afghan history and culture, and his
own hardy constitution to get him through. The portrayal of Afghanistan that
resulted was illuminating and honest. He was unsparing about the deception
and cruelty he witnessed, as well as the warmth and fellowship. I recall in
particular the vignette about local children throwing stones at a dog for
fun. For several years, Stewart lived in Kabul, where he established a
charitable foundation seeking to promote local crafts.
So when Stewart raises a yellow flag about our escalating
commitment to Afghanistan, we should take notice.
The rationale that President Obama has offered for our ramped-up
engagement in Afghanistan, Stewart argues in a piece for the London Review
of Books, runs as follows: We cannot permit the Taliban to return to power
or they will revive the alliance with al-Qaida and will plot more
catastrophic attacks on the United States. In order to defeat the Taliban,
we must create a functioning state in the country, and in order to create a
functioning state, we must defeat the Taliban. Obama seems keen to increase
our role in Afghanistan to highlight the contrast with his predecessor.
Bush, Obama ceaselessly repeats, fought "a war of choice" whereas Obama will
fight only "a war of necessity."
Obama argues that Afghanistan represents such a war. But does
it? In order to achieve the goal of a "stable" Afghanistan, President Obama
has deployed (for starters) 17,000 more U.S. troops at a preliminary cost of
$5.5 billion. His stated goals for this poor, decentralized, and
shell-shocked nation match in ambition and grandiosity the claims that
George W. Bush made for a revived Iraq but with arguably less foundation.
"There are no mass political parties in Afghanistan and the Kabul government
lacks the base, strength or legitimacy of the Baghdad government," Stewart
writes. There is almost no economic activity in the nation aside from
international aid and the drug trade. Stewart notes that while Afghanistan
is not a hopeless case, it is not at all clear that it is "the most
dangerous place on Earth" as advocates of a massively increased U.S. and
British role argue. In fact, neighboring Pakistan, sheltering al-Qaida
(including, in all likelihood, bin Laden) and possessing nuclear weapons,
represents a far graver threat to our national security. Stewart believes
that bin Laden operates out of Pakistan precisely because Pakistan, a more
robust state than Afghanistan, restricts U.S. operations. Nor is it clear
that Afghanistan poses more of a threat than, say, Somalia or Yemen. Obama
promises a "comprehensive approach" that will promote "a more capable and
accountable Afghan government … advance security, opportunity and justice
… (and) develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs."
This is more than we have the knowledge or ability to
accomplish, Stewart argues. As for the necessity, he is unconvinced that the
Taliban should loom so large as a threat to the West. He thinks it unlikely
that the Taliban will regain control of the entire country (though they do
control some provincial capitals). Unlike the situation in 1996, the Afghans
now have experience of Taliban rule. "Millions of Afghans disliked their
brutality, incompetence and primitive attitudes. The Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek
populations are wealthier, more established and more powerful than they were
in 1996 and would strongly resist any attempt by the Taliban to occupy their
areas." In any case, a more circumscribed foreign role should be sufficient
to prevent the revival of terrorist training camps as it has since 2001.
One might have thought, listening to the opponents of the Iraq
War, that a certain modesty about nation building would be axiomatic among
liberals. Instead, we are witnessing something else entirely the approach
is now brainlessly partisan. Your nation building is a war crime. My nation
building is a national security necessity. Stewart's approach is
refreshingly impartial and thought provoking.
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