Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Afghanistan

Richard Cohen writes:
The lesson that Britain learned the hard way now has to be learned all over again. The trick for the United States in Afghanistan is to eradicate al-Qaeda and suppress the Taliban -- and do both in such a way that it does not go from self-proclaimed liberator to perceived oppressor.


Leave Afghanistan to the drones and the Special Forces. It's no way to win, but it's a good way not to lose.

I'm sympathetic to the pull back over the horizon and take out the bad guys from the sky strategy. Afghanistan itself, meaning the territory, is of little strategic value. I'm also becoming less convinced by the idea that preventing a safe haven requires boots on the ground. The intelligence and drones are seemingly too effective in the border area of Pakistan to support the conclusion that we need to be on the ground in Afghanstian to harrass and destroy the enemy. I'm also convinced that the government in Afghanistan is a corrupt mess. Lastly, it's been ten years and our soldiers are dying.

But here's why I'm not so sure we should pull out:

First, it gives credence to the Islamic terrorist narrative that we can't stick it out. That they can just wait for us to leave places. Also, it supports their narrative that we are weak behind all our technology.

Some may say that narratives are simply stories with no real impact and that the Islamists will spin how they spin. But an important aspect of radical, militant Islam is its materialist basis. We are largely talking about engineers who see the world through the materialist lens, but are dissatisfied. They see Islamic countries as economically and politically weak. Their lives, like those of many materialists, are devoid of profound meaning. They, like a first semester freshman (with whom they share the same ignorance of history, theology, and philosophy), have become enamored of a theory that seemingly explains it all. If we provide material evidence that the narrative is correct, then it will only exacerbate the problem.

Second, there's a long-term impact to withdrawing when the narrative we were using is that this was the good war. The war we must win to be safe. Plus, as the story goes, we were bringing modernity and equality to the people, especially the girls, of Afghanistan. Do we want to be seen as turning our backs on little girls and leaving them to the wrath of the Taliban? Seems like a bad precedent to set.

To continue will certainly be expensive, slow and frustrating. It's going to take a lot of economic development, decades of sustained effort probably, to produce the circumstances where a tribal area with a long history of poppy cultivation, with its appeal of quick and dirty profit, can transition into a stable state run by honest and competent leaders. Is it worth it? I dunno, but I feel dirty turning our backs on little girls whom we've promised a shot at a better life. If we get into something, we really ought to finish it.


George Pal said...

Sticking it out is of value only in the pursuit of something worthwhile and achievable. The metaphor of the first semester freshmen (clever!) is useful only insofar as one realizes that is the full extent of the (Islamic) narrative – there’s no second semester.

“Do we want to be seen as turning our backs on little girls and leaving them to the wrath of the Taliban?”

There’s nothing about Islam that would goad me more into a good fight than their treatment of women but I doubt even that level of outrage would do any good. Occupy the territory for a hundred years, segregate it, quarantine the malevolent aspects, and in a hundred years little will have changed, so little as to make any change imperceptible and in all likelihood ostensible. The upshot: all our good intentions will have been reduced to the narrative – occupiers and enemies of Islam.

FLG said...


I agree that there is no 2nd semester of the Islamist narrative, but there is certainly a rich and varied Islamic narrative. Don't forget, we have still have Aristotle, to provide one example, because the Arabs held onto him. There's lots there in the Islamic tradition.

I disagree with your cynical view of our ability to change things over there. We have enough knowledge and know-how, I think, to facilitate enough economic development that we can both disprove, economically and politically(Read: materially), the Islamist narrative, and hopefully make their lives over there tangibly better. I'm certainly no utopian and I don't have any illusions that it would be easy, but I believe we can make a difference. Again, lots of that is because Islamism is fundamentally materialist in its orientation.

I don't think we would be as well equipped right now to deal with a true ideological or theological competitor at the moment.

George Pal said...


I’ll give you the rich and varied Islamic cultural narrative and I would note that Western and Christian Europe was, though mostly from afar, greatly curious and even admiring of it – I’m reminded of this having just finished listening to Callas' Marten Aller Arten. Admiration of the Oriental became something of a fad inside Europe. And Mozart was hardly alone in adopting the theme of the generous and compassionate Turk. The point is; has there been, substantially, any such curiosity or admiration of the West in Dar al-Islam? Or are we invariably the enemy?

If I am cynical it’s because the evidence hasn’t inspired hope. Life, made materially better for the ordinary people there would certainly be greatly appreciated and, just as certainly would make them the target of the impressionably brutal fundamentalist who cite the inherently brutal Prophet. I am prepared to be joyful proven wrong but if it comes to that it’ll come as the greatest of surprises.

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