Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Afghan Question, Part II

As stated here before, we (the voters) hire a president mostly to make good decisions. And the most important decisions are in two categories: keeping the economy going, or restarting it and establishing and maintaining peace. If a president gets those two items right, he will likely be remembered fondly by history. If either is messed up, then all bets are off.
So what President Obama decides about Afghanistan, already our longest-lasting conflict ever, is important. Here's what we would like to have happen there: the country emerges as a true democracy in the geographic midst of dictatorships and theocracies, the Taliban is removed as a threat to the government, no part of the country is exploited by Al Qaeda or anyone else as a staging ground for attacks on the US, Israel or Pakistan, and other Mideast countries copy their once looked-down-on brother. Oh, and opium is replaced by something else as the country's cash crop.
That's quite ambitious. Would we settle for less than the entire list? Yes, we would if we were sure that any military trouble would be strictly local and posed no threat to Afghanistan's neighbors. As for the rest, it's hard to imagine the democratization of a country run by tribes except in its capital. There is no Afghan middle class at all, and few means to create one, since opium seems to be the only stuff that grows there and there is no oil. And, contrary to almost the entire world, the Afghans don't seem to mind war as a way of life, though they seem to have had their fill of the Taliban.
I can't see how we come out winners here. Terrorists will always find a place to operate from. One cave is as good as the next. Nation building? That might have been the one thing Bush was right about. You can't do it for someone else regardless of what you're willing to spend. The Pakistanis have a sizable military, and if they start, as part of defending themselves from Islamic radicals, to make the Indians next door nervous, we can offer assurances that the Pakistanis won't aim their nuclear weapons at New Delhi. And even if all Afghans decide that it's "Death to America", they pose no threat except as individuals, something we are already spending enormous resources to combat.
I heard on NPR today that the President is trying very hard to make a good decision here, but that the option of simply pulling out of Afghanistan has been scratched from his list. At least his method for deciding these things goes well past Bush's famous decision-making "gut" - the organ that gave us Iraq. Anyway, I won't hold my breath, but still wish we could give peace some kind of chance. It's hard to see the upside of thousands more troops in a country that has never been successfully occupied, and which we've already failed to pacify after eight years.


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