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Defending Our Afghanistan Policy

From the left and the right, this morning’s newspapers bring fundamental challenges to our Afghanistan policy.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that the U.S. war effort is simply too costly. He suggests withdrawing troops and instead building schools. “That,” he argues, “would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.”

Over in the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Jack Devine, a former CIA officer who was involved in efforts to help the mujahideen in the 1980s, also argues for withdrawing U.S. soldiers. His preferred alternative is relying on his former employer, the CIA, to mobilize Afghan proxies on our behalf. He admits that after a troop withdrawal, which he envisions happening in 2012, “Afghanistan will likely enter a period of heightened instability,” including the possible collapse of the government, so he advises “we should figure out now which tribal leaders — and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions — we could establish productive relationships with.”

I’ve written a longer article based on my recent visit to Afghanistan for an upcoming issue of Commentary that explains why the policy we’re currently following offers our best chance of success and why there is no realistic Plan B on the horizon. But let me just point out a few of the more obvious problems with Kristof’s and Devine’s prescriptions.

Take Kristof first: he places an awful lot of faith in the power of education despite the fact that some types of education — like that provided in many madrassas — actually fuels extremism. Presumably, he has in mind secular schools that educate boys and girls. He might ask himself how long such schools would last under a Taliban regime — which would be the inevitable result of an American pullout.

Kristof takes comfort from the fact that some foreign-funded schools are able to operate today in dangerous parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the connivance of local tribes, but the Taliban today don’t exercise absolute control over most parts of Afghanistan. Even in areas of strength, they often must make compromises with local factions and avoid antagonizing the people because they know that if they do, the government of Afghanistan and its foreign allies may take advantage of a popular backlash to push them out. If the U.S. actually left and the Taliban were able to consolidate their rule, it is safe to say they would exercise no such restraint. They certainly didn’t in the 1990s when few schools were operating, and practically none admitted girls.

More broadly, a Taliban takeover would be a nightmare for the people of Afghanistan. How would women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, freedom of speech, and other cherished liberal values fare under those conditions? Perhaps Kristof should ponder those questions a bit before suggesting the withdrawal of the most humane and liberal force in Afghanistan — the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

Devine’s argument appears, on the surface, to be more hardheaded, but actually, it is almost as unrealistic — and not incompatible with Kristof’s fantasy, as I bet Kristof imagines that his “schools for all” option could be supplemented by Special Operations and CIA actions to keep the Taliban in check. Such operations worked well in the past, as Devine notes, when the CIA was helping the mujahideen resist Soviet rule and then again in 2001, when it was helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban. But there is a fundamental disparity between those situations and the one we face today. It’s much easier for a covert force to overthrow a government, especially an unpopular government like the Soviet-backed regime or the Taliban. Altogether more difficult is imposing the rule of law, extending the authority of a new government, and stamping out a tenacious insurgency. Those are the challenges that we face today in Afghanistan, and they can’t be accomplished by a handful of special operators. They require large troop numbers, and because the Afghan National Army still lacks adequate capacity to police the country, its efforts must be supplemented for the short-term by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Devine’s prescription – making common cause with local strongmen — would make the problem worse, not better. Much of the reason the Taliban were able to stage a resurgence beginning around 2005 was that after 2001, we had not sent large troop numbers into Afghanistan. Instead, we relied on unsavory local allies who, with our help, built up vast networks of patronage and corruption that alienated the people and made some of them turn to the Taliban for succor. (For a profile of one of these unsavory characters, turn to the Washington Post today).  As Richard Holbrooke notes, “Rampant corruption in Afghanistan provides the Taliban with their No. 1 recruiting tool.” Devine’s strategy of bolstering local strongmen would make the corruption problem even worse and would thereby make the Taliban even stronger.

POSTSCRIPT: An American working in Afghanistan points out another problem with Kristof’s argument that I should have noted: “How will Kristof’s schools get built if there’s no U.S. presence to make sure they’re done? How many billions have we already had stolen by the locals and local governments, right under our noses?” Good point. The deeper one delves, the more absurdities emerge with Kristof’s “schools rather than troops” daydream.



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