Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Goodnight Kabul

George Will on Afghanistan:
[B]efore launching New Deal 2.0 in Afghanistan, the Obama administration should ask itself: If U.S. forces are there to prevent re-establishment of al-Qaeda bases -- evidently there are none now -- must there be nation-building invasions of Somalia, Yemen and other sovereignty vacuums?

U.S. forces are being increased by 21,000 to 68,000, bringing the coalition total to 110,000. About 9,000 are from Britain, where support for the war is waning. Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable.

So, instead, forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan...
Which of course would leave the Afghan people largely to themselves once again, even if the Taliban regain control of the national government. And that probably can't be helped.

In the 1990s there was a seminal article in the "New Yorker" about the ruling fundamentalist Muslim Taliban's savage policies, especially toward women. I remember thinking that it was too bad the U.S. couldn't do something, which, of course, it couldn't. American foreign policy can't be based on eliminating odious regimes. If it were, we would probably have to begin with our trading partners and bondholders in Beijing.

After Sept. 11, U.S. forces made seeming quick work of the Taliban. The successor regime, while hardly ideal when it came to women's rights, was a considerable improvement. If we hadn't undertaken the massive effort in Iraq, perhaps President Bush could have made Afghanistan into a model of modern nation-building while also doing a more thorough job of rooting out Taliban fighters and reducing their destabilizing effect on Pakistan. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe Afghanistan is the rock on which great powers stub their toes in wearying succession. If there's one lesson of the last 150 years, it's don't get embroiled in a war there. As Will suggests, find other ways to battle al-Qaeda. But get our troops out.

To accomplish a deescalation, President Obama will need cover from like-minded Republicans who refuse and even pledge to forgo using it as a political issue. If that doesn't seem possible in this toxic political environment, perhaps everyone could think about how toxic it is for the men and women who have been sent to Afghanistan to do the near-impossible. And if anyone is thinking of making a Vietnam comparison, please don't. South Vietnam was Switzerland in comparison.

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