Thursday, December 3, 2009

Toward a More Grateful Afghan People?

I wasn't able to watch President Obama's speech on Afghanistan on Tuesday, but I heard much about it the following day and have been thinking about whether we are doing the right thing. I pulled out something I haven't looked at in a while. It's a Soviet campaign medal from their war in Afghanistan that I picked up from a Moscow street vendor back in 1992.

The reverse, in a master stroke of overestimated gratitude, reads "From the Grateful Afghan People" in Russian and Arabic.

Holding this medal again made me wonder about whether we're doing the right thing here. So in the tradition begun by Peter King in his football column, here are a few"things I think I think."
  • The Santayana "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" conundrum. I can't help but be reminded that a number of empires have gone into Afghanistan thinking that it will be easy going, only to be bogged down. It was true for the "Great Game" fought in central Asia, it was true for the nine years the Soviets spent in Afghanistan, and it is true for the (at least) ten years that we will have spent in Afghanistan by the time our troops stop leaving.
  • Afghanistan was envisioned as a short war, but it oviously did not turn out that way. The chief reason for this was that our forces were moved from Afghanistan to support the Bush/Cheney war on Iraq. If we had the resources on the ground in 2003, this war may well have been over long before now. So it is at the very least not helpful, and at the most a continuation of the Bush administration's pathological lying, lack of accountability, and refusal to admit complete and utter failure for people like Dick Cheney critizize Obama on this, particularly for their perception that domestic politics is driving the decision. This from a group that won the2004 election by branding any opponent of the Iraq war an al Quaeda sympathizer. I think that the new Obama strategy is sound, I'm glad that there is a sense of what success looks like, and I'm glad that the plan includes a set of guardrails to guide withdrawal. I hope that people remember the kind of support that Bush received at the beginning of this war. At least he got the benefit of the doubt that he was doing the right thing. Let's remember that as we think about our current Commander in Chief, who is infinitely more intellectually engaged in his Presidency, and is much better served by his civilian staff, than his predecessor.
  • Afghanistan is only a piece of the puzzle. It is naive to think that by winning the war in Afghanistan that we thereby pacify Iran, stabilize Pakistan and decouple the political influence of the Middle East with our almost complete dependence on them for our energy needs. But I agree with my graduate school professor David Rothkopf that it's folly to underestimate the complexity of the raft of issues of which Afghanistan is only a part.
So that's what I believe about where things are in Afghanistan at the moment. Only time will tell if the result is a truly grateful Afghan people or another shiny medal. I'll look forward to seeing what comments are made on this posting--maybe they can be the basis for a future conversation.

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