Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thanks to Michael Gerson, It's All So Obvious....

All we have to do in Afghanistan is "win then negotiate". (Um... but wouldn't that be appeasement?)

Gerson's editorial, as you might expect, is useless. It tells us why we should "win" - because if we don't there is no question but that the girls and women of Afghanistan will suffer horribly in at least parts, and more realistically in most or all of the country. But he ignores both the present reality, that girls and women continue to suffer horribly in parts of Afghanistan despite a massive military presence, the cultural factors that have created and will perpetuate that reality, and a history in which the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and gave girls and women many rights that they enjoyed right up to the end of Soviet occupation, and the fact that desire for victory is not a strategy.

I'm not sure whether Gerson is simply sharing the Kool-Aid served up by his former boss - that the war is about the rights of women, with the implication that its success be measured by the progress of women in Afghan society - or if he's also drinking. Certainly, the more you learn about the plight of women under the Taliban, the more horrifying the conception of allowing that type of oppression to recur. But the sad reality is that Bush's strategy for Afghanistan appears to have in fact been to keep enough troops present to avoid overtly losing that war before the end of his presidency. His administration recognized that the best way to keep the public engaged and supportive of that war, and the one in Iraq, was to contend that a principal goal of the wars was to advance civil rights for women and for marginalized ethnic groups and, as Gerson continues to argue, that negotiation or withdrawal would lead to horrors for those groups. It's hard to argue with that. The problem is, as they say, it's easier said than done.

The position advanced by Gerson - we must "win" - tells us nothing either about how we might win or what a victory might look like. It did provide Bush with convenient cover for his strategy of perpetuating a war that he seemed to have lost interest in demonstrably winning - but there's a world of difference between advancing and solidifying the rights of women and minorities, and giving them lip service when your only real goal is to avoid revealing your war strategy as an abject failure.

Gerson also parrots the inevitable argument of proponents of indefinite occupation - that the groups that are resisting occupation are simply waiting us out, and even if they give lip service to our goals as part of a negotiation aimed at getting us out of their country they'll revert to their actual policies the moment we're gone. But that doesn't distinguish this occupation from any other. Unless you're going to follow the model of an occupying power that is going to dig in, force cultural change, and remain in occupation for the decades - perhaps generations - it takes for the occupied people to incorporate your culture, you can expect that the occupied people will return to many, most, and perhaps all of their own cultural traditions once allowed to do so. When we talk about the Russian Jews or Chinese Catholics, we talk about the indomitable human spirit. Just because you don't like the Taliban's religious or cultural beliefs doesn't mean that they're any less sincere or deeply held. For that matter, Gerson apparently believes that it's only the Taliban that oppresses women, while many non-Talibani warlords have historically done exactly the same thing and continued those practices even after the Taliban was deposed.

Similarly, we can look at our own nation's history. Gerson is probably aware of the U.S. civil war and its nominal end of slavery. He is probably aware that it took more than a century for overtly racist laws and policies to be ended in many southern states. He may be aware that racism lives on in this country and that there remains a population of people who argue that African Americans are socially or genetically inferior, sometimes both. Perhaps he's forgotten that women didn't have the right to vote in this country until 1920. Even in the western world, effecting cultural change can be painfully slow.

Perhaps Gerson's not aware of the fact that even long-term occupation doesn't guarantee that a group opposed to the occupation won't rise in power after the occupation ends, either to rebel against the government or to form a secessionist movement. Perhaps he missed how several European nations reverted to ethnic conflict, even dividing into separate nations, after the fall of the Soviet Empire. Perhaps he missed the ugly ethnic rivalries present in many nations of the post-colonial world, including Iraq. Closer to Afghanistan... no, make that in Afghanistan... perhaps he missed the collapse of the government left behind by the USSR when it ended its occupation. Perhaps he's never heard an Afghan speak with pride about how his nation has never been successfully conquered. Perhaps he is also unfamiliar with the concept of blowback. Perhaps he missed how Israel's efforts to defeat the PLO led to its ill-fated occupation of Southern Lebanon, and turned Hezbollah into its enemy, or how its efforts to marginalize and defeat the secular PLO in the occupied territories led to the rise of Hamas.

Whether or not he tried, even as he provided a link to the actual story, Gerson couldn't quite bring himself to be honest. He argues that, when asked about the possibility of settlement with the Taliban, CIA Director Leon Panetta responded that they're not truly interested in reconciliation. In fact, Panetta was speaking broadly of "insurgent groups". Gerson's notion that this means the U.S. should double down, committing even more troops and money to defeat insurgent groups who show no interest in sincere negotiation after being on the receiving end of the longest war in U.S. history might, perhaps, make a more thoughtful person wonder if a military victory can be achieved. Such a person might question whether massive military actions, injuries and deaths to civilians, the overwhelming presence of foreign occupying forces, and the effort by those forces to redefine local culture might not be an effective mechanism to force a monumental shift of Afghan culture. Or whether it's reasonable or feasible to wipe out an enemy that has sufficient support within the community that its fighters can fade into the civilian population when they want to hide from occupying forces. (Has Gerson read nothing about the Vietnam War?)

With due respect to Gerson's emphasis on human rights, that apparently commenced with the U.S. occupation, perhaps he should spend some time explaining the policy positions of the pre-9/11 Bush Administration. Does Gerson agree that women's rights should take a back seat to the war on drugs? That they don't merit mention when we're talking about eradication of opium poppies, but for some reason must be front and center in any discussions that are intended to end a bona fide, shooting war? It's easy to endorse the human rights conception of the war in Afghanistan, which is why the Bush Administration pushed that conception of the war, but if you look at the Bush Administration's actions it's difficult to view its professed interest in the plight of Afghan women as anything more than spin. Gerson started penning speeches for Bush in 1999 - he must know that history. For that matter, he must be aware of how hard Bush pushed (or should I say didn't push) Saudi Arabia to improve its treatment of women.

Some fair questions for Gerson:
  • How, exactly, is he defining victory in Afghanistan?

  • How long will it take to achieve that victory?

  • What will be the cost in both dollars and lives?

  • Are there any U.S. strategic interests that he deems more important than human rights for the Afghan people and, if so, what are they?

  • What should the United States do if it finds a way to achieve all of its military and security objectives in Afghanistan, but with the trade-off being that it does nothing to alleviate the plight of women?

  • What level of human rights would Gerson find sufficient - for example, does he envision a U.S. military occupation that lasts until Afghanistan treats women in the manner of the United States? In the manner of Saudi Arabia?

  • What if the generals to whom Gerson insists we must defer find that, to defeat the Taliban, the U.S. must ally itself with warlords who don't share the Taliban's religious zeal but treat women in the same manner as does the Taliban?

As Gerson also contends that we're now "winning" in Iraq, it's also fair to ask - if we apply the measure of his former boss, how are we actually doing? Or is he changing the measure of what victory is supposed to look like as a matter of convenience to his present argument? If I may be concrete, if we were to assume a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, should we expect the post-victory Iraqi government to support or oppose Iran's nuclear program, and on what evidence?

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