Thursday, March 26, 2009

Afghanistan: Can Washington Change Enough to Win?

EXCERPT: "Winning" in Afghanistan for Washington, whatever that may mean, will require something much more difficult than meeting the challenges of operating in Afghanistan. It will require that Washington clean up its own act.

TEXT: In a brief essay that asks the right question (can the U.S. win in Afghanistan), Michael O’Hanlon offers some quick warnings of why the U.S. might lose in Afghanistan before concluding that we should go ahead with the Afghan surge with expectations of winning. Although a piece that attempts to be balanced, its treatment of the dangers illustrates what may be the primary danger of all facing Washington: its propensity to gloss over embarrassing realities about its own behavior.

The most glaring reality that Washington seems to be glossing over at the moment about Afghanistan is illustrated by O’Hanlon’s comment that violence in Afghanistan is “not nearly as bad" as in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. What he omits is the key point: it was the presence and behavior of American soldiers combined with the Bush Administration’s obvious long-term designs that provoked this violence. The first problem in Iraq was foreign boots on the ground; this was immediately compounded by the Bush Administration’s focus on military victory, as opposed to “turning the lights back on” or keeping social order (remember the history museum?). The second problem was the Bush Administration’s focus on colonizing, as opposed to declaring Saddam’s removal a victory and preparing for withdrawal. These two problems opened the door to al Qua’ida and the resultant five-year war.

The second embarrassing reality that Washington seems to be glossing over about Afghanistan is illustrated by another remark of O’Hanlon, that Washington has some “pretty good” Afghans to work with. Perhaps that is so, but several considerations warrant skepticism. Afghans who were committed to reform were frequently the ones who joined the crusading Taliban back when they were the good guys during the post-Soviet civil war era when everyone else was fighting for power. In addition, in view of the horrifying atrocities committed by the warlords in that civil war who ended up getting U.S. support to overthrow the Taliban, one might wonder if the leopard has truly changed its spots. Yet another cause for concern is the astonishing success of the Afghan illegal narcotics export business under Washington’s “friends.”

The third embarrassing reality that Washington is glossing over relates to yet another O’Hanlon remark, that Afghans are willing to tolerate “foreigners who want to stay just long enough to help them establish a viable state, viable military and police institutions and a stronger economy — and then leave.” Accepting that statement still fails to address the crucial issue: given American policy in Iraq (e.g., its bases that seem to have more permanence every day, the size of its embassy, its policy on who controls Iraqi oil), why would any Afghan believe this?

In order to determine whether or not an Afghan surge makes sense, it is necessary to show how Washington will:

  • Avoid provoking Iraq-scale hostility by its presence;
  • Find and work with Afghans who are both genuine social reform-oriented patriots and willing to cooperate with Washington;
  • Convince Afghans that it is not out to colonize the place.

These are tough requirements. The American record in Iraq and Afghanistan has been marred by contempt for local culture, trigger-happy troops, lack of concern for civilian casualties, over-use of high-tech weapons in civilian areas, jailing and torture of those whose guilt was not proven. Although some efforts to reform such behavior is evident, decision-makers responsible for such behavior have not yet been tried, which strongly implies a lack of sincerity in Washington about ending such abuses.

Cooperating with patriots is also tough, from the perspective of both sides. Americans in a position of military strength have typically had great difficulty dealing with locals as equals. On the other hand, patriots will have their own policy preferences and are unlikely to kowtow. The result typically is that Americans (like any other occupying power) tend to become involved with lackeys who command no local respect, while the patriots end up either marginalized or radicalized.

As for convincing Afghans that Washington is not out to colonize their country, at least three difficult steps probably need to be taken to achieve this:

  • America needs to leave Iraq, something it is not even close to doing, given the bases; the 50,000 troops Obama is leaving behind; the Persian Gulf fleet; and the 100,000-odd mercenary forces that always seem to be ignored when Washington officials publicly discuss American force levels in Iraq.
  • Washington needs to clearly reject its goal of regime change in Iran, one area where recent progress appears to be evident.
  • Washington needs to decide that it indeed does not want to colonize Afghanistan, a decision that the public evidence suggests has yet definitively to have been made.

It seems only logical that Afghans will look at U.S. policy toward itself, Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon, and Palestine in order to guess what future U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is likely to be. Washington’s attitude toward reform and liberation movements in these societies provides scant evidence to reassure Afghans. Oh, yes, there are all the well-known Afghan-specific reasons why a U.S. surge there may turn into a quagmire (the mountains, the Afghan military tradition and intense sense of patriotism, the skill of the Taliban at pointing out every mistake Americans may make). But before even worrying about those issues, Washington decision-makers need to figure out how to correct their own past mistakes in helping/pacifying/transforming Moslem societies. I have yet to see a coherent argument showing why this time will be different.

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