Afghanistan – Don’t Despair

     President Obama’s announcement that he is sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan has been met with moans from some folks on his own side of the political spectrum. Their unhappiness is understandable, given how awful the war in Afghanistan has been, but they moan too soon.
     They seem to think Obama is just doubling down on President Bush’s failed policies. He isn’t.
     The criticism has ranged in tone from earnest to despairing. At the harsh end is Alexander Cockburn, for example, who says Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan “bids fair to be one of the greatest foreign policy disasters of the postwar epoch” which given recent history is, well, a rather harsh assessment.
     The progressive documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald has hastily launched into a film, to be released in chunks on the website www.rethinkafghanistan.com, assessing the conflict and the US role.
     But everyone already thinks the situation is complex. The implication of the title “Rethink Afghanistan” is that more troops are being sent without a rethinking taking place, but everything Administration officials have been saying … serious statements with diplomatic consequences … indicates that the policy basis for the dispatch of the new troops bears little resemblance to the thinking of the Bush Administration.
     Remember the essential features of Bush foreign policy. First, it sought “clarity,” a clear division of the world into good guys and bad guys, acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Second, once “clarity” was achieved, it relied on military means alone, threats or action, for dealing with bad guys and used diplomacy solely in an effort to get good guys to go along with the plan. Third, the grand strategy underlying the “clarity” was a sincerely held, noble, but frankly mad vision of a huge cultural and political shift.
     If we bring democracy, freedom and prosperity to every human in the Middle East, they’ll be happier and we’ll be safer, the thinking went. (It is achingly true, but Bush wasn’t blessed with a tenth of the power or a hundredth of the wisdom necessary to pull off such a miracle.)
     Armed with this thinking, Bush refused to negotiate with Iran, lumped the Taliban with Al Qaeda as bad guys, and reserved diplomacy for getting good guys, like Pakistan and Uzbekistan, to help find all the bad guys and shoot them. And the judgment of progress in the region was based not only on “victory” over the Taliban, but social change as well.
     Bush repeatedly cited the number of girls in school as a sign of success, for example.
     Many have outlined a more tempered approach. An article in Foreign Affairs just before the November election argued that we can’t win an outright military victory, so we should seek a regional settlement that takes account of the actual interests of the countries in the area, including Iran, as well as our own interest in preventing terrorism. And we can distinguish between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
     Al Qaeda is a small ideologically motivated international movement, while the Taliban are Afghans with local political goals that must be dealt with realistically.
     So which way is Obama is headed? Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited Iran to a regional conference on Afghanistan that is seeking exactly that kind of regional accord and Iran has now accepted. Last week, too, Obama gingerly raised the prospect of talks with “moderate” elements of the Taliban.
     I don’t know if the Taliban has moderate elements, but we have quickly found out that talks have already started between Taliban and Afghan officials. And the White House is pursuing a formal review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy staffed by people, like Richard Holbrooke, who have experience trying to defuse complex situations and who are not wholly blinkered by “clarity.”
     Afghanistan is being re-thought and none of the thinking resembles the Bush foreign policy at all.
     So why send more troops into a horrid, deteriorating fight before the rethinking is done? The situation there is deteriorating quickly. There not going to be negotiations of any kind unless the parties involved, especially Afghans and the Taliban, believe the people at the table are really at the table. If the US shows signs of leaving, the Taliban will continue seek power by force and both they and the Afghans, who are acutely sensitive to betrayals of trust, will ignore outsiders offering advice.
     There is a difference, to the region, to the world, to all those girls in school now, between negotiating with the Taliban and an orderly surrender to the Taliban. By increasing his forces there, Obama can deliver some setbacks to the Taliban in the short run and keep our chair at the table. It is an open question, and a debated one, whether the Taliban can be split, weakened or negotiated down, but a lot of their foot soldiers are not idealogues and, as happened plenty in 2001, can be flipped if they believed it is in their interest.
     “Negotiating from strength” is so often a lie that people forget how often it works.
     Leave aside that Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do and that the move is surprisingly popular among otherwise war weary Americans. Judging it afresh now, the move seems justified by the situation.
     We should give it a chance.

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