Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The "Good War"

I just finished reading the most-excellent piece in the Sunday NY Times that details how the swift and sure decapitation of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, a military campaign which liberated the Afghan people and left many optimistic about Afghanistan's chances for ultimate peace, has degenerated into a dangerous guerrilla war with Taliban forces that find comfort among segments of the Afghan populace and move easily back and forth across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border to attack NATO forces and kill and kidnap aid workers. The basic story is well-known; the Bush administration was distracted because they already had one eye on the future invasion of Iraq, but the article makes clear that the Bush administration had no idea and no real interest in figuring how to put Afghanistan back together:

Mr. Bush had belittled “nation building” while campaigning for president 18 months earlier. But aware that Afghans had felt abandoned before, including by his father’s administration after the Soviets left in 1989, he vowed to avoid the syndrome of “initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure.

“We’re not going to repeat that mistake,” he said. “We’re tough, we’re determined, we’re relentless. We will stay until the mission is done.”

The speech, which received faint notice in the United States, fueled expectations in Afghanistan and bolstered Mr. Karzai’s stature before an Afghan grand council meeting in June 2002 at which Mr. Karzai was formally chosen to lead the government.

Yet privately, some senior officials, including Mr. Rumsfeld, were concerned that Afghanistan was a morass where the United States could achieve little, according to administration officials involved in the debate.

Within hours of the president’s speech, Mr. Rumsfeld announced his own approach at a Pentagon news conference.

“The last thing you’re going to hear from this podium is someone thinking they know how Afghanistan ought to organize itself,” he said. “They’re going to have to figure it out. They’re going to have to grab ahold of that thing and do something. And we’re there to help.”

But the help was slow in coming. Despite Mr. Bush’s promise in Virginia, in the months that followed his April speech, no detailed reconstruction plan emerged from the administration. Some senior administration officials lay the blame on the National Security Council, which is charged with making sure the president’s foreign policy is carried out.

And so it remains. Our actual goal in Afghanistan is still unclear. While we certainly subscribe to the notion that we're trying to put some viable state together to govern the country, our entire mission in Afghanistan seems colored by the "war on terror" lens, which is why we seem to think it's worth our effort to bomb Afghan civilians to kill a handful of Taliban fighters. Fortunately, the situation in Afghanistan-while complicated-is not the morass that Iraq is. Although our ham-handed anti-terror and drug eradication efforts have alienated some of the populace, most of them still remember the years of heavy-handed rule under the Taliban and are still willing to tolerate our presence in their country. The ethnic divisions aren't as intractable, Afghanistan is not located in a crucial region, and outside powers are not as interested in meddling as in Iraq. So there's hope yet that peace can be brought to Afghanistan. But while we haven't yet-in my opinion-reached the point of no return, we would do well to remember that the clock is ticking and without a serious re-commitment of effort of Afghanistan, we may yet find that our enemies have outlasted us and Afghanistan will become a haven of terrorists and their allies again.

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