an op-ed i wrote on afghanistan...
Yes We Can (Lower Our Standards)
As the Afghanistan policy debate continues behind closed doors in Washington, I’ve been putting together the pieces of the Obama administration’s emerging Afghanistan strategy. I’ve written about Afghanistan before, and I’ll make no effort to hide what I believe: Counter-insurgency is nothing to be sheepish about. Obama should give General McChrystal all the troops he needs.
But as I read the headlines yesterday, Obama’s message of hope didn’t seem to apply to Afghanistan. One AP headline that stood out was “Obama focusing on al-Qaida, not Taliban.” It seems like the strategy is basically “Yes we can,” but only if we lower our standards. With a war weary public, I can understand the temptation to water down the objectives, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that seeking accommodation with Islamic militants is never a good idea. That’s how the Taliban came to power in the first place, and we’re still cleaning up that mess.
The U.S. aided and abetted the Islamic militants against the Soviet Union in the 80s, and turned a blind eye to Afghanistan once the project against the Soviets had run its course. The Soviet Union, in a curiously similar position to what the U.S. is facing now, watered down their objectives in Afghanistan after an unsuccessful attempt to hunt down Islamic militants along the Pakistan-Afghan border. As war weariness set in, the Soviets pulled back from the countryside and garrisoned the cities, gradually replacing their troops with Afghans.
The strategy worked in the short-run, and the cities held against the American-backed Islamic militants. Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah consolidated his control of the cities, much as President Hamid Karzai is doing now, mockingly earning him the title, “the Mayor of Kabul.” Najibullah also pursued the same strategy Obama seems to be proposing now, national reconciliation with the Taliban. With Najibullah in control of the cities and “peaceful” reintegration of the Taliban underway, the Soviets and the Americans packed up and went home. A few years later, the Taliban took Kabul.
So what went wrong? Well for starters, the Taliban’s ideology is a mixture of Wahabbism and pan-Islamism. Wahabbism advocates a strict interpretation of Islam and renders it permissible to kill non-adherents or “infidels,” which includes most of the world and even countless other Muslims. Pan-Islamism advocates the unification of all Muslims under one Islamic government, which would require the overthrow of countless peaceful governments across the Middle East. (I hear nuclear-armed Pakistan is looking good these days.) Does this sound like an amenable ideology that can be effectively mollified through power sharing?
For a more recent case, take a look at Pakistan’s Taliban experiment. The Pakistani government, secular by most accounts, has always been mixed up with Islamic militancy. They courted Islamic militants along with America against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and they used Islamic militants against India in Kashmir. Like America, lately they’ve been dealing with some serious blowback. Unfortunately for Pakistan, their threat is existential. One unintended consequence of the war in Afghanistan was to push thousands of Taliban into the already restive provinces of northwest Pakistan, further destabilizing its already shaky political foundations.
So last February, Pakistan tried a truce. Also last February, I wrote in my blog condemning it. Pakistan allowed the Taliban to create a haven in the Swat Valley, permitting the Taliban to govern and even implement their sick version of sharia law. (No Michael Jackson memorials.) After dozens of terrorist bombings and hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilian deaths, a cursory glance at the headlines shows how well that worked out.
So again, what went wrong? Well they can’t say I didn’t warn them. The Taliban’s radical Islamist ideology has never been pacified by letting them have their own little corner of the world. They’re not exactly the type of people who understand timeout in the corner (of the country). I hope the Obama administration keeps that in mind as the Afghanistan policy debate continues.
If a watered-down version of counter-insurgency does indeed become the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, let me say that I’ll leave room for error and sincerely hope that I’m wrong. Unfortunately, I’ve been right about this before. In my humble opinion, appeasing the Taliban failed for the Soviet Union, placating the Taliban failed for Pakistan, and giving a failed strategy one more try doesn’t exactly deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.