Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Afghanistan, we (really) hardly knew ye

Have you ever read an article or story about a subject that really made you take a moment and think to yourself, "Damn, I don't know what I thought I knew about that"?

I recently came across just such an article. "How We Lost the War We Won: A journey into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan" by Nir Rosen turned out to be an incredible eye-opener for me.

An American reporter granted nearly unprecedented access to some of the most off-limits part of that country, Rosen relates a story of a far more nationalistic than fundamentalist resurgent Taliban--one even open to women in schools and jobs--and a situation that cannot be "won" through military means.

I urge you to read it. Go on, I'll wait.

A taste:
With the Bush administration focused on the war in Iraq, money poured into Afghanistan from Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists, who were eager to maintain a second front against the American invaders. The Taliban — once an isolated and impoverished group of religious students who knew little about the rest of the world and cared only about liberating their country from oppressive warlords — are now among the best-armed and most experienced insurgents in the world, linked to a global movement of jihadists that stretches from Pakistan and Iraq to Chechnya and the Philippines.
But this isn't a Bush bashing piece. Rosen gets down in the dirt and dust with the people of Afghanistan, literally risking his life to bring this story back to the rest of the world. And his main point seems to be that merely throwing more troops, more brawn at the problem is not going to fix much of anything.
"More troops are not the answer," a senior United Nations official in Kabul tells me. "You will not make more babies by having many guys screw the same woman." It is a point echoed in dozens of off-the-record interviews I conducted in Kabul with leading Western diplomats, security experts, former mujahedeen and Taliban commanders, and senior officials with the U.N. and prominent aid organizations. All agree that the situation is, in the words of one official, "incredibly bleak."


As one top official with a Western aid organization put it, "We're simply not up to the task of success in Afghanistan. I'm increasingly unsure about a way forward — except that we should start preparing our exit strategy."
The key line, and my inferred moral to Rosen's story, is this:
"This can't be solved other than by talking to the Taliban," says a top diplomat in Kabul. A leading aid official adds that it is important to understand the ideological goal of the Taliban: "They don't have an international-terrorist agenda — they have an Afghanistan agenda. We might not agree with their agenda for the country, but that's not our war."
It's a tough pill to swallow. I'm the polar opposite of a fan of any regime or ruling power that oppresses any of the people over whom it holds sway. I don't agree with conservative Islamic doctrine, or any doctrine, that subjugates women. But Afghanistan is not my country to rule. It is not anyone but Afghani's to rule.

The trick, of course, lies in making sure that Afghanis, all Afghanis, have an equal and unthreatened voice in those ruling decisions. Part of that does, I believe, require outside involvement, but much more in the form of international aid for infrastructure rebuilding, schools, security training, and know-how for a whole host of programs and problems. Not so much with the armies and weapons.

It was, after all, the US and Soviet Union that provided the region with much of its military training and armament. I would argue that it is then up to us to help them recover from all of that, but not by repeating past mistakes. Like the man said, you will not make more babies by having many guys screw the same woman.

Crass, but you get the point.

What's really interesting to see is how that country's government is now slowly flexing its independent muscle, perhaps emboldened by the prospect of the end of the Bush administration. Just today, the Karzai government made what's being called a "surprising reversal" and agreed to sign on, with 100 other countries, to a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs. The United States, it should be noted, has refused to sign the treaty and had been urging Afghanistan, one of the countries worst effected by the bombs, to follow suit.

Whether Karzai's move is purely political or not, it's impressive and important. Cluster bombs, much like modern nuclear weapons, are, in my opinion, completely unneccesarry tools of barbarous overkill. And the people they most hurt--regular Afghani citizens--are who we should all be listening to anyway.

What this all comes down to, I think, is the same moral of the story that we've learned (or were supposed to have learned) from Iraq. More often than not, the people who actually live in a place are the ones who best know what that place needs and how its people live. Even with the best of intentions, an outside power that swoops in and attempts to force change through violence is destined to wreak havoc and, usually, fail in its ultimate goals.

The US wanted to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan as part of their larger effort to "contain the spread of communism". They succeeded at that, but in the long run provided training and weapons to people like Osama bin Laden, who would go on to return the favor by helping to kill thousands of people on 9/11.

The US wanted to prevent the Islamic Revolution happening in Iran from spreading into Iraq and other nearby countries, and so threw its support behind Iraq during the '80-'88 conflict. In so doing, they helped supply the regime of Saddam Hussein with many of the weapons and intelligence it would go on to use against our own forces.

We have to stop supporting dictators and regimes simply because it seems convenient to our country's own selfish goals at the time. It always comes back to haunt us in the long term, which is a tense we seem to have a difficult time thinking in. We also have a difficult time asking for help and advice from the people most likely to know what's really up: the locals. And we are far, far too quick to rush toward force and violence as means to our ends.

I thought I knew a thing or two about Afghanistan and the Taliban. But things, as they are wont to do, change or are not what they at first appeared to be--and we all need to work to keep our minds open and flexible to keep up with the times. We need to really listen to the Afghani people to find out what they want, and then stick to that plan. Sorry Mr. Obama, but "more troops" isn't going to win that war. Through arrogance and incompetence, we've already lost it. Now's the time for finding a way to lend a hand in securing a meaningful peace--and to give up the reins of power and control over anyone but ourselves.

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The Lost Albatross