Hard Is Not Hopeless
Posted by Michael Cohen
This week the New Republic has a series of articles on Afghanistan - the aforementioned piece by Anna Badkhen on the perilous situation in the north and Ahmed Rashid's argument for writing off the south and east are focusing US energies on the north and west perhaps the two best. But worthy of mention (not necessarily for the right reasons) is David Rieff's submission. After correctly and cogently summarizing all the reasons why the US endeavor in Afghanistan is likely to fail, Rieff makes the following observation:
This is, to put it mildly, a particularly unhelpful addition to the current national debate on Afghanistan.
In all likelihood, God help us, we will be staying in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. That much seems obvious, and, while I am all for opposing the mission as a matter of conscience, I have no hope at all that this opposition will have any effect. That’s OK. Historically, being on the losing side in such battles has rarely been a dishonorable place to be.
I am somewhat more hopeful— comparatively, anyway—that the fact that almost everyone knows the Obama administration’s stated goals in continuing to prosecute this senseless war are unachievable will further the American people’s growing disenchantment with expeditionary wars and humanitarian and human-rights-based military interventions. There may be nothing that can be done about Afghanistan, but perhaps its pointlessness will at least serve as a caution when, as will certainly happen, a future administration proposes yet another adventure in imperial idealism somewhere down the road.
First, it ignores the many pressure points that exit to shift the direction of US policy on Afghanistan. There is the all-important year review that is supposed to take place this December as well as June 2011 when the first contingent of US troops are supposed to come home from Afghanistan. Of course, there is also public opinion, perhaps the most important anti-war lever, which is increasingly moving in opposition to the conflict.
Second, it oddly disregards the shifting national debate on Afghanistan. Over the past few weeks there has been a rising chorus of voices offering alternatives to the current failing policy. I chronicled several of them here; Jack Devine offered another new one yesterday arguing for a CIA-focused, smaller US footprint approach.
Whether you like these alternatives or think they're all bunk the growing and long overdue intellectual ferment on Afghanistan is extraordinarily important. The more that the policy community can provide alternatives to the current COIN-focused course favored by the military the better the opportunity for an actual shift in strategy (ironically this is sort of what happened in Iraq in 2007 with the surge). Moreover, if and hopefully when the Administration shifts course on Afghanistan it will need the support of today's critics to counter what will almost certainly be pushback from the military. Coalescing around alternatives to the current strategy will give that effort more legitimacy and more traction.
The notion that a critic of the current policy would throw up their hands and argue that all is lost; let's worry about stopping the next humanitarian intervention is both ill-advised and ill-informed.
Thirdly, Rieff's "honorable" course glosses over the national security imperatives - not to mention moral responsibility -- of getting Afghanistan right. Rieff, to his credit, has been a fervent opponent of humanitarian interventions and frankly with good reason. Often when the US intervenes militarily bad things happen, particularly for the civilian population in the country where we determine our national interests are threatened. (The first Iraq War and I suppose Kosovo are obvious modern exceptions).
But the issue in Afghanistan is not whether we go in - it's how we get out. And how we leave Afghanistan matters a great deal. I fear that if we continue on the same course that we are currently headed the calls for withdrawal will increase and we will depart hastily from Afghanistan. That's why a national debate about Afghanistan right NOW is so important; because it will hopefully offer ideas for how we can get out while also leaving our interests protected and the Afghan state in as stable a place as possible.
I don't believe - and never have - that we can transform Afghanistan into anything other than a slightly less failed state than it already is. Nation building in the Hindu Kush is nothing more than a fool's errand - and our responsibility to Afghanistan only stretches so far as our actual and rather limited ability to affect it's long-term development trajectory (Peter Bergen's argument in TNR that we must "fulfill our promise" to the Afghan people with New Deal-style works programs is as a rather Panglossian take on this theme).
But if we can ensure that a Taliban takeover is not possible (and that already seem pretty unlikely); that a somewhat stable functioning government in Kabul can take hold; that the potential for a return to the horrible civil war of the 1990s is minimized; that a healthy percentage of Afghans will not have to live under the Taliban's medieval edicts; that al Qaeda will not be able to use the country as a base for operations . . . well frankly that makes for a smarter approach than the current policy and one that might actually further US interests and help the Afghan people. And that's a rather minimal goal that seems achievable and realistic.
But the fatalist approach advocated above is quite obviously not the way to get there. It's a useful reminder to the progressive community - and those who believe that the current effort will not succeed - that this is precisely the moment when we should be placing even more pressure on the Administration to shift course on Afghanistan. None of this will be easy - and the pushback both from the military and the GOP - will be furious, but hard is not hopeless.
Like Rieff I hope that the lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan will be to never again attempt what he calls "adventures in imperial idealism." But in the mean time, there's a war going on.