July 17, 2009


Rory Stewart has a long article that relates to my unease with Afghanistan strategy.  In his article, The Irresistible Illusion, he actually promotes a solution:

After seven years of refinement, the policy seems so buoyed by illusions, caulked in ambiguous language and encrusted with moral claims, analogies and political theories that it can seem futile to present an alternative. It is particularly difficult to argue not for a total withdrawal but for a more cautious approach. The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance – not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

Posted by: Sarah at 04:19 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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1 I have only skimmed the article, so my comments will focus on the excerpt.

I prefer Stewart's policy to what we have now. However, I have one major objection to it. He wrote,

But the intervention in Afghanistan was a response to 9/11, sanctioned by international law and a broad coalition; the objectives were those of self-defence and altruism.

His proposal revolves around those two objectives. While I am all for the first objective, I have doubts about the second.

I am puzzled by conservatives who are all for spending US tax money on

good projects [that] could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies

in Afghanistan but not on similarly altruistic projects in the US. Why should Afghans get US-funded 'free' health care while Americans don't?

I am not arguing for 'free' government health care in the US. Please note the scare quotes. My point is: if conservatives expect Americans to fend for themselves, why do they expect Americans to fund crutches for Afghans for years? Conservatives are always saying how welfare fosters dependence. Is that only true in America? Are we not fostering milllions of foreign dependents?

What William Saletan (no conservative, I know) wrote about Iraq in 2005 applies to the altruistic half of Stewart's proposal (emphasis mine):

Tonight President Bush explained how he plans to get our troops out of Iraq. "Our strategy can be summed up this way," he said. "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

I've heard politicians say this sort of thing before. But the politicians were liberals, and the downtrodden people they talked about were needy Americans. As these folks learned to support themselves, government would no longer need to support them, the liberals promised. As the poor stood up, we would stand down.

For 40 years, the central argument of the Republican Party—George W. Bush's party—was that liberals had it backward: If you prop people up, they'll never stand up, and you'll never stand down. You have to let go. As you stand down, they'll stand up.placeAd2(commercialNode,'midarticleflex',false,'')
Which brings us to the occupation of Iraq. In blood and money, it's fast becoming the most expensive welfare program in the history of the world. Like other welfare programs, it was a good idea when it started. [Saletan would say that; he is a liberal.] Like other welfare programs, it has begun to overtax the treasury and the public. Like other welfare programs, it warps the behavior of its beneficiaries. But in one respect, it's unique.
It's the one welfare program conservatives can't criticize or even recognize, because they're the ones running it.

If I were a poor American, I might wonder, why should I vote for McCain and let Iraqis and Afghans benefit from American tax dollars when I, an American, should be receiving government assistance? Why should I vote for McCain, who wants the US to spend a zillion years helping foreigners in the Middle East? Why shouldn't I vote for Obama, who will help me, an American?

Is it any wonder such people are pro-Democrat and anti-war?

What have government programs done for them? I need not describe what our inner cities are like.

Why are government programs abroad better? Because they are run by our military good guys, not them - not Leftist social worker bad guys?

Around 2005, someone asked, if America can't even make Washington, DC a decent city, how could it possibly build a new Iraq (and, I would add, Afghanistan)?

Altruism may even conflict with the first objective of self-defense. Dependents are not necessarily grateful. Ask the North Koreans of 2009 how grateful they are for their 1930s Japanese trains and 1930s Japanese medical equipment. Dependents resent their position and a few Afghan dependents may turn to terrorism.

Speaking of terrorists, how much of a threat do the Taliban pose to us at present? It's often been said that we fight them over there to keep us safe over here. What if we just prevent them from coming here? What if our immigration policy screened out jihadists? If the Taliban are so dangerous, why can't we minimize contact with them and their country? Why do our doors have to stay wide open?

Suppose Stewart's nightmare scenario came true:

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security.

If we disagreed with Stewart and regarded the takeover as a threat to national security, wouldn't it be cheaper to briefly invade, destroy the Taliban, and leave? (I am recycling Sha'i ben-Tekoa's proposal for US policy in Iraq.)

When someone goes berserk in a poor American neighborhood, the police come, neutralize the threat, and leave. The police do not stay for eight years and double as social workers wrestling with 'root causes'. If the American police doesn't build neighborhoods for poor Americans - and if America is the world's policeman - why does Officer America have to build Afghanistan?

Unfortunately, Stewart's proposal is going to be more popular than mine. His altruism appeals to both Leftists and Rightists who dream of helping the Third World. (The real conflict between them is whether the poor in the West should receive government assistance.) My proposal is too mean. Lock our doors and let the Afghans deal with their own problems? Not likely.

So I fear we'll continue to stay the course in Afghanistan and Iraq while real threats go unchecked in Iran and North Korea. Which is a greater danger to the US, the Taliban or nukes?

Posted by: Amritas at July 17, 2009 08:27 PM (h9KHg)

2 You wrote this in another post, but I thought my comment would be more relevant here:

how casually an Afghan man says he would divorce his wife and choose another if she couldn't bear children.

I think you understand why I get nauseated by the thought of Americans fighting for Afghans.

Regarding Planet Afghanistan, we still hear the deadly cliché that "all human beings want the same basic things, such as better lives and greater opportunities for their children." How does that apply to Afghan aliens who prefer their crude way of life and its merciless cults?

- Ralph Peters

I should point out we are the aliens from Planet America to them. Should the twain ever meet?

Conservatives revere America's early leaders. What if the Barbary Wars had been more like today's altruistic wars? What if Jefferson had decided to occupy and help North Africa?

Why are pro-war conservatives so excited about Afghanistan and Iraq, and less interested in the disaster areas of their own country: e.g.,

Detroit’s public schools are on the verge of bankruptcy, reports the Wall Street Journal ... Of those who start ninth grade, only a quarter claim a diploma four years late ...

Detroit would be the first major urban district to go bankrupt, but it probably won’t be the last.

Is it because the former are distant abstractions for those on the homefront, whereas the latter are all too familiar and depressing? Have we given up on our fellow Americans in favor of an "irresistible illusion" in the Middle East?

Posted by: Amritas at July 22, 2009 12:57 PM (+nV09)

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