Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Change of Direction in Afghanistan?

The President is meeting with top advisers to consider how to move forward in Afghanistan, in light of the report of General McChrystal, which said that a new strategy and greater commitment is needed for the mission to succeed there. My question is whether it is possible for the country to have an intelligent debate on Afghanistan policy. My fear is that political divisions will prevent us from seeing the real problems at stake in that region.

One obstacle to an intelligent debate seems to be an inordinate focus on the question of appropriate troop levels. The issue of how many troops are needed to perform a mission seems particularly ill-suited to a political debate by non-experts, and particularly prone to political grand-standing by both sides in the debate.

Another thing that seems to stand in the way of intelligent discussion is our tendency to replay debates over past wars. Both the left and the right see the debate on the Afghanistan conflict as a way to vindicate their prior positions on Vietnam or Iraq; or as a chance to bash each other over prior policy mistakes in Afghanistan itself. While it may have parallels to past conflicts, the unique situation in Afghanistan deserves unbiased study and understanding.

The fact is that the United States, and NATO, have a substantial interest in preventing the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan, unless the Taliban were able to demonstrate that it will play by the rules of the democratic process, and respect the rights of Afghan citizens. We also have an interest in preventing Al Quaeda from having safe havens in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But even apart from our own interests, we should be concerned about the human rights of the people of Afghanistan, who have suffered through decades of civil war, in part fomented by the United States, the Soviet Union and other outside powers. When the great powers last got tired of Afghanistan, the Taliban stepped into the void. Women could then forget about going to school; men could not shave their beards; and people had to bury their radios and televisions in the backyard for the duration. We have a responsibility to try to prevent that from happening again. A new strategy is surely needed in Afghanistan to accomplish these important goals. Whether that requires more troops or not is beyond my expertise. But those who question the military assessment of what is needed should have the burden of proposing alternative strategies that might have a chance of success, and should not simply throw up their hands and suggest that we pull out and leave the Afghans'--and the world's--fate to a group that has shown no respect for people's rights in the past.

(White House photo)


  1. O said Afghanistan is vital to our nation's security. As his base gets angrier at him for not putting the yellow stripe on our back and running away he will "modify" his position enough until the new one doesn't resemble the original one.

  2. This is one of those times when I'm glad I'm not the president, because there are no easy choices. I believe Obama's inclination is to keep increased attention on Afghanistan, but you are right that his base is getting impatient with that strategy. And history has shown that staying the course is not a good strategy unless it is successful. I think the key is a stronger commitment from NATO, otherwise Congress and the public are not going to be willing to keep footing the bill for such a difficult mission.