Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cutting Afghanistan Into Pieces... With Honor?

No surprise here.... Henry Kissinger has crawled out of the woodwork to warn us of the perils of abandoning a "war forever" approach to Afghanistan:
We have a basic national interest to prevent jihadist Islam from gaining additional momentum, which it will surely do if it can claim to have defeated the United States and its allies after overcoming the Soviet Union. A precipitate withdrawal would weaken governments in many countries with significant Islamic minorities. It would be seen in India as an abdication of the U.S. role in stabilizing the Middle East and South Asia and spur radical drift in Pakistan. It would, almost everywhere, raise questions about America's ability to define or execute its proclaimed goals.
Does that sound an awful lot like Kissinger's laundry list of reasons for why we had to stay in Vietnam? And yet after U.S. forces withdrew his parade of horribles did not come to pass. Yes, the consequences were horrific for the allied Vietnamese we left behind. But it was in fact Vietnam that brought an end to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and despite being one of the five remaining communist nations on the planet (Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, China, and North Korea) it now welcomes tourists from the U.S. and is a trading partner. (Kissinger should perhaps think long and hard about the list of the five remaining communist nations, and contemplate whether all of them would still be communist but for the policies and interventions he favored.)

In many ways Kissinger is engaged in the same exercise that others engaged in before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, presenting apocalyptic hypothetical scenarios of what could happen if the U.S. proceeded with the wars. Yes, we could get the worst case scenario. But we could get something that looks quite different and, let's be honest, the accuracy of Kissinger's prognostications have historically been abysmal, including in relation to the Iraq war.

The people who deserve credit for their predictions are those in the first Bush Administration who advised Bush the Elder that having accomplished our military goals for Iraq it was best to depart as opposed to toppling Hussein's regime and getting bogged down in endless war. No doubt, there were some extremely ugly consequences to that decision, which Bush the Elder was willing to accept. Where was Kissinger when the "candy and flowers", "it'll be a cakewalk" crowd got the ear of Bush the Younger, and talked him out of wars that focused on narrow military objectives and into "regime change".

Don't get me wrong, I have long held the position that top-down democratization of a nation without either a democratic tradition or institutions was unlikely to succeed. It's much easier to impose a steel-fisted tyrant, with or without a velvet glove. Russia's experience indicates such a tyrant is unlikely to maintain his hold in Afghanistan absent significant outside military support. But let's pretend that Karzai's regime were about to flower into a progressive democracy. Is it not self-evident that the military commitment necessary to support and nourish a nascent democracy would be far greater than that needed to support a tyrant? To look at it another way, western powers have a long track record of imposing, supporting and otherwise backing various leaders in the post-colonial era. When we compare the number of flourishing democracies that resulted to the number of tyrannical regimes, how do things stack up?

At the start of the Iraq War, CWD and I had several discussions about the Bush Administration's approach, why it was unlikely to succeed even if it abandoned its grandiose ambitions to simultaneously attempt shock therapy-style privatization on the nation, how building democracy at the local level would make sense, and why that would not be acceptable to the Bush Administration. There are no state secrets in any of that. What was amazing is how we were supposed to take seriously the "it'll be a cakewalk" crowd - the idea that post-war occupation could be done on the cheap, and that Bush's hand-selected proposed leaders for both Iraq and Afghanistan would be welcomed by willing, grateful nations with showers of candy and flowers.

So now, as the Afghan War becomes the longest in U.S. history, Kissinger wants to take a bottom-up approach to reinventing its government. Or perhaps it's "start at the bottom and stay there," with regional warlords kept in check with the perpetual placement of U.S. occupation forces, as opposed to by a national government or military. Many of those local governments would look like, no, they would be the Taliban. Many others would be non-Talibani, but would take an approach every bit as oppressive to the rights of girls and women. War advocates seem to flip-flop between "We can't leave because it will be horrible to women," and "We really can't do much even if we stay" - for most of them the human rights side of the war has always been an argument of convenience, not belief. Kissinger, on the other hand, isn't making a human rights argument and makes no argument that his ideas will result in democratization - his record suggests that he has interest in neither.

The difference between the Afghanistan of days gone by, in which local warlords ignored, imperiled, and even overthrew a central government, while trying to amass as much wealth and power as possible, and the one that Kissinger envisions is... well, his warlords would apparently behave themselves. Beyond that, Kissinger's ideas sound a lot like what one might read in an annual report, were Afghanistan a corporation....
A regional diplomacy should seek to establish a framework to insulate Afghanistan from the storms raging around it rather than allow the country to serve as their epicenter. It would also try to build Afghanistan into a regional development plan, perhaps encouraged by the Afghan economy's reported growth rate of 15 percent last year.
Kissinger's notion that the U.S. would be less able to engage Iran, as opposed to more able, were its military not bogged down in a perpetual Afghan war, is laughable - and should the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan I would not be surprised if he's one of the loudest voices arguing "Don't bring them home when Iran's right there, next door, waiting to be invaded." His fear seems to be less that Afghanistan might devolve into chaos, or that it might again provide safe haven for international terrorists, and more that a competing power might manage to take control of the nation and its resources.

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