Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No They Are Not the Same

Thomas Friedman, out of that strange desire some members of the media have to appear "neutral" by attacking both Democrats and Republicans, chides Democrats-and Obama in particular-for their focus on Afghanistan and equates it with the Republican obsession with more drilling to solve the energy crisis. Here's an excerpt:

Republicans, by mindlessly repeating their offshore-drilling mantra, focusing on a 19th-century fuel, remind me of someone back in 1980 arguing that we should be putting all our money into making more and cheaper IBM Selectric typewriters — and forget about these things called the “PC” and “the Internet.” It is a strategy for making America a second-rate power and economy.

But Democrats have their analog. For many Democrats, Afghanistan was always the “good war,” as opposed to Iraq. I think Barack Obama needs to ask himself honestly: “Am I for sending more troops to Afghanistan because I really think we can win there, because I really think that that will bring an end to terrorism, or am I just doing it because to get elected in America, post-9/11, I have to be for winning some war?”

So the question in Friedman's mind is whether Obama is willing to let soldiers die for a cause he actually believes in, or just to win a political campaign? He's just asking, you know. but that's only the beginning. Friedman thinks this is a legitimate question to ask because he doesn't know any damn thing about Afghanistan, as he goes on to demonstrate.

The truth is that Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan are just different fronts in the same war. The core problem is that the Arab-Muslim world in too many places has been failing at modernity, and were it not for $120-a-barrel oil, that failure would be even more obvious. For far too long, this region has been dominated by authoritarian politics, massive youth unemployment, outdated education systems, a religious establishment resisting reform and now a death cult that glorifies young people committing suicide, often against other Muslims.

The humiliation this cocktail produces is the real source of terrorism. Saddam exploited it. Al Qaeda exploits it. Pakistan’s intelligence services exploit it. Hezbollah exploits it. The Taliban exploit it.

The only way to address it is by changing the politics. Producing islands of decent and consensual government in Baghdad or Kabul or Islamabad would be a much more meaningful and lasting contribution to the war on terrorism than even killing bin Laden in his cave. But it needs local partners. The reason the surge helped in Iraq is because Iraqis took the lead in confronting their own extremists — the Shiites in their areas, the Sunnis in theirs. That is very good news — although it is still not clear that they can come together in a single functioning government.

The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.

So, if you link disparate conflicts under the rubric of the "war on terror" then they are all clearly different fronts in the same fight. This only works of course if you completely discount the differences between these unique nations, or better yet, conflate Afghanistan-which remember, lies in Central Asia-with the Arab world, even though most of the Arabs in Afghanistan are only there fighting for Al Qaeda. In fact, if Friedman knew anything about Afghanistan, he'd know there's little "humiliation" being exploited. Afghanistan has been riven by different factions for decade, and only became united after conquest by a tyrannical theocracy led by Pashtuns who feel as comfortable in Pakistan as they do in Afghanitsan (and who, by the way, are not Arabs or even Persians.) They were ousted with easy by the United States and the Northern Alliance not only because of that coalition's superior firepower, but because many Afghans were tired of being ruled by religious tyrants...especially the Tajiks, who generally make-up Hamid Karzai's central government.

The reason the Taliban are faring so well has nothing to do with Afghans who are unwilling to fight them (and Friedman insults the 3000+ Afghans who have died fighting the Taliban.) It has everything to do with the fact that the Taliban have a safe haven in Pakistan from which they can cross into Afghanistan at will, to prosecute military operations and acts of terror along with Al Qaeda, who is for all intents and purposes are now based in Pakistan. The Afghan people in general are not prepared to be ruled by the Taliban again, but they are still vulnerable to acts of terror and intimidation by the Taliban as a result of a lack of sufficient forces to protect them. They also are at the mercy of a corrupt and ineffectual central government, a government that is incapable of imposing it's authority upon the country because of feuding warlords who fear no retribution or worse, are part of the government. How did that come about? Because the Bush administration saw it as a convenient way stabilize the country and to get troops out of Afghanistan quickly so they could fight in Iraq.

In short, Friedman doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. Afghanistan is winnable, both politically and militarily, and the grave threat posed to us by terrorist who roam free in Afghanistan and Pakistan justifies a continuing commitment to the conflict in that country. It's not playing politics to think so or to say so, and Friedman impugns the patriotism not only of politicians, but the intelligence of Americans such as myself by equating the focus on Afghanistan with the desire to drill for more oil. Afghanistan is a war worth winning, but we are apparently going to have to win it despite the efforts of ignoramuses like Friedman to turn it into a triviality of our own electoral politics.

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