Friday, March 27, 2009

Further into Afghanistan

So generally speaking I don't exactly have an opinion on the doubling down in Afghanistan, other than a certainty that it will all end in tears in the short term and only maybe with some kind of unflashy satisfaction in the long term (if we make it to the long term). This certainty is so far in the background it doesn't even seem like an opinion on a policy so much as a fact of life--in my opinion, the exact nature of what we do in Afghanistan in the short term doesn't matter. We're not going to see the results that would make us happy (and for many of us, that happiness would be ambivalent at best) anytime soon, no matter what; long-term, I'm not really sure exactly what we want outside of vague notions of "stability" and misleading (because impossible) rhetoric about poppies, and I don't know enough to think effectively about what we ought to be doing.

All that said, I think Andrew Sullivan is spot-on here:

As long as we can prevent terrorist bases forming that could target the US mainland, I do not see a reason for this kind of human and institutional enmeshment. My fear is that it multiplies our enemies, drags us further into the Pakistan nightmare, and will never Westernize a place like Afghanistan without decades-long imperial engagement. Secondly, I do not believe that Iraq is as stable as some optimists do, and fear that we will not be able to get out as cleanly as the president currently envisages. To be trapped more deeply in both places in a year's time seems Bush-like folly to me.

And here, where he notes that David Brooks has been drinking the Kool-Aid again:
Remember that David was only just warning of Obama taking on too many projects at once. But another expanded war in another distant country against another close-to-undefeatable foe? Bring it on! Everything is too much except empire. That's the American DNA.

Brooks' piece is called "The Winnable War," and it is--I was going to be arch and say, "it is, well, uh, interesting," but actually it is worse than that. By my count, it includes:

1. Basic presentation of Afghanistan as inherently broken and problematic
2.Basic presentation of the U.S. effort there as misdirected, dysfunctional, and largely composed of chickens with their heads cut off who also draw flow charts.
3. The big "BUT WAIT! I'VE BEEN CONVERTED!" followed by:

A. Afghanis are just like us! They want what we want! They "detest the insurgents and root for American success"; they have treated us as "friends, allies, and liberators from the very beginning." Look, I'm not here to make a case for the alien and hostile nature of Afghani culture or anything, I am just very, very wary of generalizing this statement to the whole of Afghanistan. It may well be true of the Afghani individuals a prominent American columnist meets when touring the country in whatever the equivalent of the Green Zone is; I just think if it were true of the whole country, well, things would look very different right now. I mean, the one quote from a Real Live Afghani person is from the defense minister, who has a lot of interests other than veracity in talking this way. I think it must be quite obvious that while any broad statement about what Afghanis are like and what they want is fraught, as it would be of any group, arguing that generally speaking Afghanis are rooting for American success seems heroic to the point of idiocy. Any talk of how we just need to educate them as to our aims and their interests at this juncture to get them on our side--which is the only plausible explanation for how people who want what we want and are rooting for us continue to be at war with us--will cause me to scream. In addition, I find it very, very hard to believe that Afghanis want their country occupied, or that "They think we owe them all this." If I were to generalize about what Afghanis want--and, clearly, I am about to--it seems likely that if most Afghanis feel they are owed anything, it is to be left alone.

B. Happily, we are already far along in the trial-and-error process of trying every possible error before trying maybe something that might work. Goooo Yankee know-how! This is working out so great! And we even figured out what our priorities are (which we are totally correct about this time, guys, don't even worry about it) after only like eight years! Rad!

C. Romanticizing the culture.
This country had decent institutions before the Communist takeover. It hasn’t fallen into chaos, the way Iraq did, because it has a culture of communal discussion and a respect for village elders. The Afghans have embraced the democratic process with enthusiasm.

Remember, at the start of this piece the country was inherently problematic; the interposing litany of American commitment, lessons learned, and high hopes allow the author to now employ the trope of how great Afghani culture is at its heart as a reason for why we, the Americans, will be successful in eradicating particular conditions of Afghanistan (low rates of education, high rates of terrorism and insurgency, the Taliban) which we are, of course, authorized and correct in separating from culture and deeming Bad. (I am also not here to defend the Taliban as nice guys, or to say that the U.S. doesn't have a clear interest in getting rid of them; I just think it's awfully convenient that all the Good bits about Afghanistan are inherently part of the culture and all the Bad bits are temporary ills we are there to dispel.)

And then, of course, D: the Yankee Doodle moment.

I finish this trip still skeptical but also infected by the optimism of the truly impressive people who are working here. And one other thing:

After the trauma in Iraq, it would have been easy for the U.S. to withdraw into exhaustion and realism. Instead, President Obama is doubling down on the very principles that some dismiss as neocon fantasy: the idea that this nation has the capacity to use military and civilian power to promote democracy, nurture civil society and rebuild failed states.

Foreign policy experts can promote one doctrine or another, but this energetic and ambitious response — amid economic crisis and war weariness — says something profound about America’s DNA.

"Withdraw into...realism"? I know he is referring to the foreign policy philosophy and not simply good sense, but did he even reread that before publishing it?

"Infected" is right.

ETA: Larison seems to have come to much the same conclusion.

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