Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, President Bush began strikes on Taliban targets in Afghanistan and began a military operation to root out the radical group. But before nearly finishing the task at hand, neo-conservatives (some of whom had established the Project for the New American Century and had previously tried to push President Clinton into war with Iraq) renewed their effort to make a case based on faulty intelligence for Iraq. The effort led to a poorly thought out unilateral invasion that cost the U.S. billions of dollars, thousands of Iraqi and American deaths and tens of allies.
President Obama ran with the promise that he would bring the Iraq war to an end and refocus our attention to fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who were our real adversaries. The promise made sense, had international appeal and gained the strong support of Democrats, independents and some Republicans, who voted to send him to The White House with a 7% advantage over his war veteran Republican opponent, Senator McCain.
But as it sometimes happens, we have begun to see some flip-flopping taking place following the election. The difference is that this time, it is not the politician, now President Obama, who is doing the flipping, but some of the very people who so faithfully supported him and his position on Afghanistan. As President Obama is getting ready to live up to his promise, renew American efforts in Afghanistan and make a number of critical decisions regarding an increase of troops, an ever-growing chorus of liberals is pressuring him to abandon Afghanistan and withdraw without any regards to what will happen next. These individuals make a number of unpersuasive arguments, from generic anti-war platitudes to faulty comparisons with other unsuccessful wars.
One of those overused comparisons has been with Afghanistan's war with the Soviets in the 1980s and the fact that the Soviets were unable to root out the Taliban after 9 years of fighting. But the Soviets' war with the Taliban was fundamentally different than ours.
First, Soviets' main objective was quite narrow: to support the Marxist government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against the Taliban. They did not focus on defending the population, helping to educate and build schools or support development and trade. The American policy under President Obama is fundamentally different and more comprehensive. While President Bush saw Afghanistan as mostly a military project, President Obama has a comprehensive policy that goes far beyond just the military operations.
Secondly, the Taliban were in a stronger military position during their war with the Soviets because they garnered full American support. As soon as they began their war, President Carter authorized the CIA to begin a massive propaganda effort against the Marxists, making the Afghan government unpopular and Taliban popular. And shortly after President Reagan was sworn into office, the United States began training and arming the Taliban. Of course the Taliban were able to fight the Soviets more ably with the strong help of a super power like the United States. But the Taliban now have no state sponsors, putting them in a much weaker position.
And the third major difference between the Soviet's war with Afghanistan and current American efforts -- which also makes comparisons with Vietnam irrelevant -- is that while Afghans may have felt ambivalent or supportive of the Taliban in the 1980s, they are now deeply unpopular in all parts of the country. Afghans have now had the chance to live under a Taliban regime and remember the brutalities and carry the scars. Because of this experience, Afghans by and large were ecstatic to see the Taliban go and deeply fear their comeback now. This reality also makes American initiatives in Afghanistan much more popular than those of the Soviets. The same issue of popularity makes comparisons with Vietnam irrelevant (where Viet Cong was very popular and had the state sponsorship of the Soviet Union against the United States, leading to the American failure for some of the same reasons that the Soviets failed in Afghanistan).
It is true that we are not going to bring true democracy to any country. Those who believe Iraq is a full-fledged liberal democracy now should expect major cases of corruption, rigging of various elections, insurgency and inter-ethnic and inter-sect violence in the coming years. Democracy will only survive and flourish in a country if a critical mass in that country has evolved through the necessary stages that would allow them to understand the value of democracy as the system that can best serve their collective and common interests.
However, if there is one country where this rule does not apply in the short run, it's Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an extremely tribal country that lacks the most basic infrastructural elements that would enable its people to get educated about not just mathematics and biology, but nationalism, government and all the different ways in which they can take control of their own destiny. As long as they lack those necessary elements, they will not be able to evolve and embrace democracy and reject the extremism of the Taliban. The United States and NATO are now in the unique position to help modernize Afghanistan enough so that the population can have a reliable window to the rest of the world, raising their social consciousness and seeing how they, too, can live in a free, advanced and respected country. Only one aspect of the project should involve the military; others should include helping the Afghans shift their economy from opium to other areas, build schools and opening up the country to foreign companies that are willing to invest and bring communication technologies such as cell phones, satellite dishes and the internet to all parts of the country
Some may admit that there is an advantage in a comprehensive NATO strategy in Afghanistan, but still question why the U.S. should be the one to take leadership of this modernization project. For three reasons:
- Leaving Afghanistan may be a comfortable position to take in the short-run, but will lead to the immediate rise of the Taliban and a guaranteed safe heaven for Al Qaeda. It is not so much the camps in dirt that provide Al Qaeda with the ability to attack the U.S., but the fact that whereas they are now spending most of their resources to fight NATO troops, a safe haven will free up those resources that they can then use to train and equip individuals in the United States.
- If the United States sees itself responsible to stop genocide in places like Darfur, it must also do what it can to prevent them from happening in the first place. Leaving Afghanistan will lead to a surge of violence on the part of Taliban against those Afghans who will defy their rule. Belief in the notion that Afghans should determine their own future grossly simplifies reality in Afghanistan with the false assumption that Afghans have choices. If the U.S. leaves, there will be no choices. Talibans have the guns and brutality, and they will kill, imprison and torture whoever questions them.
- The United States was responsible for strengthening and even perhaps the eventual rule of the Taliban following their war with the Soviets. This policy led to a long dark period of repression, torture and killing in Afghanistan. For that, we now owe it to Afghans to do what we can to help them build their own country. The United States cannot intervene in other countries to the detriment of those countries and then withdraw at exactly the time when the people that we have done harm with our policies need us the most.
As President Obama begins to consider sending more troops to Afghanistan, he should know that we can neither kill the Taliban out of existence through an exclusively military policy or withdraw and pretend the future of Afghanistan will not directly impact our national security in the long-run. We must stay in Afghanistan and begin pursuing a comprehensive strategy that speeds up the process of opening up the country's economy to foreign investments in telecommunications and technology, education and infrastructure. If our policy is truly comprehensive, then the presence of American military and NATO should be considered a necessary component in that strategy to protect the population and hold the Taliban out of the cities while Afghans have the chance to build their own country.