THE indecision in Washington over Afghanistan has prompted a plethora of criticism from a broad range of angles, but there is at least one redeeming factor that has received insufficient acknowledgement. The vacillation is evidence of a genuine debate.
Granted, it’s a debate that ought to have taken place a long time ago. But even at this late stage, its emergence is by no means an unhealthy development. The tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all, can hardly be held up as a preferable alternative.
Back in 2001, only a single member of the US House of Representatives dared to question whether the invasion of Afghanistan was indeed a sensible response to the terrorist atrocities perpetrated on September 11. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Barbara Lee’s voice went unheeded.
At least one senior member of the Bush administration shared her scepticism, albeit for rather different reasons. Donald Rumsfeld feared that the dearth of obvious targets in Afghanistan would make it hard for the Pentagon to demonstrate its shock-and-awe capabilities. Wouldn’t it be a better idea, he wondered out loud, to attack Iraq instead?
It is commonly assumed that the shift in Washington’s focus less than two years later seriously – perhaps even fatally – undermined its ability to reinvent Afghanistan as a relatively stable liberal democracy. That is an absurd assumption. The illegal and utterly unjustified assault on Iraq undoubtedly accounted for less attention being paid to Afghanistan, but who can say whether a deeper involvement in the latter would necessarily have wrought less baleful results?
The Taliban were not foolhardy enough to try to put up a fight. They melted away, and the US and its allies mistook this for a victory. It is certainly possible that some kind of Marshall Plan, entailing large-scale development and reconstruction without a great deal of corruption, would have positively influenced the perceptions of Afghans who were relieved by the disappearance of the Taliban, and who dared to hope that the latest manoeuvre in the Great Game might entail a period of peace.
Whether such a strategy would have sufficed to overcome, by and large, the traditional distrust of invaders is an open question, but there are plenty of grounds for scepticism. Yes, there are circumstances in which militarily occupied countries can evolve not only into stable democracies but also economic powerhouses. But Germany and Japan took that path in the wake of their defeat in the Second World War only because they consisted of highly developed societies within which substantial forces favoured such a path. That pattern is entirely alien to Afghanistan.
Vietnam is often cited as an experience that ought to have served as a warning to American militarists. There are, of course, significant differences, but perhaps the key in this context is that an influential segment of the ruling elite has striven since the mid-1970s to liberate itself from the lessons of Vietnam instead of imbibing their significance. It’s an ultimately futile struggle.
Somewhat fewer commentators tend to point out that there are also vital inferences to be drawn from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan through the 1980s. And here there are two dominant strands: the communist superpower’s inefficacy in the face of popular resistance, and the rival superpower’s misjudged and ill-motivated support for Islamist fanatics in the interests of its Cold War goals.
The present US administration has gone some way towards acknowledging its role in the birth of the Taliban, the product of an unholy menage a trois involving the mujahideen, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The Obama administration has faced considerable criticism for lumping Afghanistan and Pakistan together in its so-called Afpak strategy, but the role that links between the most deleterious elements in the two countries have played in the evolution of present conditions are undeniable.
In the event, there is more than a hint of irony in reports that Pakistani officials do not want the US to disengage from Afghanistan, but are equally worried about the prospects of a big surge in American forces, as this would lead to large numbers of Afghan Taliban seeking refuge across the porous border.
In Washington, meanwhile, one influential school of opinion holds that restricting Al Qaeda to parts of Waziristan is the best that can be hoped for, and that a relatively small American force can satisfy the purpose.
There can be no doubt that American actions over the past eight years have influenced the nature of Islamist militancy in both qualitative and quantitative terms. And, given that experience, it is not easy to follow the logic of those who insist that US military engagement in the region is the only viable means of coping with the conjoined threats of religious obscurantism and seemingly random terrorism.
Both these dangers would have been considerably weaker had the US butted out in the first instance. At the moment, it is not all that hard to see how the prospect of American preponderance seems less poisonous than the threat of Islamist ascendancy. But can the latter successfully be combated while the former persists?
Ultimately, obscurantist forces, with all their dangerous fantasies and ridiculous hopes of salacious rewards in the hereafter, can be defeated only by indigenous revulsion. That holds true for Pakistan and Afghanistan alike. The latter obviously does not have a military as potentially efficacious as that of Pakistan, but it does not necessarily follow that foreign forces are an effective means of accomplishing what is necessary.
The current debate in Washington is likely to lead to a decision that won’t please anyone: a surge that doesn’t mean General Stanley McChrystal’s audacious demand, but also doesn’t clearly spell out an exit strategy. It’ll disappoint those who are prone to crying uncle. But a sustainable future for the region has got to be one in which Uncle Sam does not play a military role.