Saturday, November 07, 2009

Should We Withdraw from Afghanistan

The Guardian offers essays on continuation of the war in Afghanistan, arguing both sides of the question (from a British perspective). The argument to stay first observes the effect of seven years of the Bush Administration's neglect and incompetence:
By 2008, the situation had deteriorated so far that, with the Taliban established in outlying districts of the city, friends in Kabul who had returned in 2002 were wondering where to go if forced to flee again.
Things have since improved:
Now, finally, with Barack Obama in the White House and an American military which, for all its faults, has shown an impressive ability to learn (or relearn), we have in place the strategy that we should have had years ago. It depends on restricting the air strikes and the indiscriminate firepower, deploying troops to protect the population rather than treating them as a neutral terrain on which to hunt insurgents, training local troops, creating secure physical space for commerce, political space for some kind of process potentially leading to the eventual creation of a broadly legitimate government structure linked to broader regional initiatives.
That sounds good, right?
But will this strategy work?

Probably not.
To put it mildly, ouch. (Read the editorial for a list of everything that has gone wrong, that we're unlikely to be able to right.)
The human rights argument is weak, too. It is almost certain that any stable Afghanistan is going to be much more conservative, much more anti-western and much more authoritarian than we would like. Better than a Taliban-run state perhaps but more like Saudi Arabia than Sweden. A continued commitment will not guarantee girls the right to go to school across the entire country.

So why fight then? Why send more young men to their deaths? Why spend more money that could be used for hospitals, schools or saving banks?

For the simple reason that we owe it to the Afghans to try to make the new strategy work. Every death is a tragedy, but the price in lives and money is not an exorbitant one given the size, wealth and military history of the UK. After years of errors, we finally have a chance to do something right. In two or three years, we will know if there is a chance that the strategy can succeed. If it does, we can be proud. If it doesn't, at least we are unlikely to have made things worse. More important, we can at least honestly say to the Afghan people that we did our best.
Within the context of a strategy that does not depend upon Hamad Karzai (or his successor) being honest, competent or helpful, with the moderate goal of creating a society that's "merely" extremely oppressive to women as opposed to extraordinarily oppressive... conceding the narrow scope of what we're likely to achieve is a bitter pill. I don't think that argument is likely to persuade anybody who doesn't have a sense of how atrocious life became for women under the Taliban, but I can understand why the author, familiar with that history, wants to give it one more honest effort before we give up.

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