Regaining Control of the Afghanistan Debate

Check out this short piece from NBC on an Afghan orphanage:

Note that Afghanistan is referred to as a "dangerous" place with children "orphaned by war." But that's OK, the subject of the piece is running a "happy place." Not only that, but she's graciously being honored with some kind of award by the Washington establishment. Everybody gets to contribute to helping those poor, orphaned Afghans. Yay! And that's it. 46 seconds. When originally broadcast, that snippet was followed up by several minutes of reporting on President Obama's Nobel Prize donation to charity, because ...he's such a great guy and clearly more important?

But why is Afghanistan so dangerous? Why are all those children orphaned by war? What war? Didn't the Washington establishment start that war? They're giving awards to people who manage to round up all the surviving children from their bombing campaigns? If they had taken slightly longer than 46 seconds and provided the context to answer these questions, the whole affair would seem much more sickening and depraved, not something we should be happy about. Although it's a lot more subtle than 2002, the media is still holding us back from having an honest debate on the wars we're fighting.

This headline from the New York Times is instructive:

White House Weighs Talks With Taliban After Afghan Successes

It's taken as fact that there have been "successes" in Afghanistan, and this story is just speculation on what might happen after those successes. There's no discussion on whether or not you can count slaughtering more Afghan civilians than the Taliban as successfully protecting the population, or if installing a German expat who hasn't been to Helmand in years is successful local governance, or even if capturing the moderate Taliban and radicalizing the remaining leadership will be successful at negotiating a withdrawal. Nope, just straight out "Afghan Successes" and what those successful war makers plan to do next.

We are forced into a position here of being for or against a successful war in Afghanistan. It's never a good thing to be against something successful, so clearly the only rational choice is to be for the aggressive military violence against Afghanistan. How can you make a reasonable argument against the war when you're trapped in the box of being against success? That's not an honest debate.

Let's look at another example, this time from an opinion piece by Michael O'Hanlon and Hassina Sherjon in the Washington Post. The only thing really honest in this piece is the headline, "Five myths about the war in Afghanistan," although technically O'Hanlon manages to propagate way more than just five myths.

1. Afghans always hate and defeat their invaders.

The Afghans drove the British Empire out of their country in the 19th century and did the same to the Soviet Union in the 20th century. They do fight fiercely; many American troops who have been deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have asserted that the Afghans are stronger natural fighters.

Yet, the people of Afghanistan do not despise foreigners. Despite downward trends in recent years, Afghans are far more accepting of an international presence in their country than are Iraqis, for example, who typically gave the U.S. presence approval ratings of 15 to 30 percent in the early years of the war in that country. Average U.S. favorability ratings in recent surveys in Afghanistan are around 50 percent, and according to polls from ABC, the BBC and the International Republican Institute, about two-thirds of Afghans recognize that they still need foreign help.

So they debunk the racist myth that Afghans are xenophobic murder-machines (think "Graveyard of Empires") by immediately affirming its validity; American troops say Afghans are "stronger natural fighters" than Iraqis. Great, so not all Afghans are genetically pre-disposed to killing all foreigners, just more so than Iraqis. Even so, they continue, "the people of Afghanistan do not despise foreigners." Except for when they do. Got it.

But that last fragment there is probably the best example of how the American war debate operates. "About two-thirds of Afghans recognize that they still need foreign help," they write, which would seem to mean that we should continue on with our mission. But there's a difference between "foreign help" and a massive influx of foreign combat troops, secret prisons, robotic airstrikes, vast base complexes, and scores and scores of dead civilians.

So either you're for the aggressive war against Afghanistan and Pakistan, or you're against those poor, America-loving Afghans who need foreign assistance, a full two thirds of the population by their count. Golly, I don't want to be against two-thirds of Afghanistan, so I guess we have to support the war!

Why are we stuck in these binary choices? Surely the anti-war movement is offering more nuanced, reasonable arguments to the debate? Sadly, we're not. As we discussed on Friday, the biggest policy move so far has been H.Con.Res. 248, a bill which simply called for the immediate removal of troops from Afghanistan. Your choice is to be completely against any involvement in Afghanistan, or being for the current war strategy.

There are legitimate concerns over Afghanistan that Americans want to address with policy; human rights, counter-terrorism, narco-trafficking, good governance, development and reconstruction. The proponents of the war say we ought to use aggressive military power to deal with that, and opponents have no better solutions to offer, so they fail. Unlike the war makers, who benefit greatly from confusing and deceptive arguments, the anti-war movement is actually harmed by putting forth such irrational, binary choices.

As we talked about last week, we have to do more than just be against the war. We have to expand the debate and allow for other solutions to be discussed besides just removing the troops. Obviously, the media is not going to be any help at all, so we're going to have to pick up the slack ourselves and help craft an honest, open debate on what to do about the Afghanistan war.

How do we deal with counter-terrorism without foreign occupation? Perhaps we could expand FBI resources and enhance domestic security measures. How do we provide development and reconstruction aid to Afghans without military aggression? I can't seem to Google up any stories about the Red Cross or the World Food Program accidentally blowing up 14 civilians with rockets. Maybe we could use more of them than our military?

These are just random suggestions, but it's still more than offering the unfair choice of being against the war or being for it. We can answer the war makers' arguments with better solutions than military violence, we just haven't tried yet.

So drop me a line in the comments, and head over to Rethink Afghanistan's Facebook page and join the debate there. Help us develop a reasonable alternative policy for dealing with Afghanistan so that we don't have to be trapped in a dishonest, closed debate. Ending the war is a given, but how do we address the remaining issues in Afghanistan?

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan.