What You Should Think About the War in Afghanistan

December 19, 2007

“A tilted load will not reach its destination.”

–Afghani proverb

When an opportunistic local leader seized the goods from a trade mission dispatched by Genghis Khan, world history would undergo some major changes. Reaching toward the West in the hopes of fair trade, Mongolian envoys were not merely thwarted but also insulted by aristocrats from the Kara-Khitan Khanate, a political entity that overlapped modern day Afghanistan. Treasures were confiscated and beards were forcibly shaved. The Mongolians’ violent response would raze cities and shatter empires, yet it would also facilitate commerce and cultural exchange between Western Europe and the Far East.

When a terrorist organization with ties to the government of Afghanistan launched an effective attack against a powerful nation far off to the west, some parallels would follow. An unstoppable military force moved into the region, generating an enormous body count that few would have predicted. Yet leaders of that terrorist organization were among those few.

The Global War on Terror was no cunning application of force unanticipated by Al Qaeda. Public statements made by various terrorist leaders foretold of American belligerence that would spread violence across the globe, generating legions of widowers and orphans consumed by the desire to strike back. There is little prospect of war in Saudi Arabia, and cooler heads may yet prevail in the determination of America’s Iran policy. Yet broadly speaking, it seems the only people not surprised by the scope of violent response from the United States were leaders of the U.S. government and leaders of Al Qaeda.

Declaring a global war on an abstract concept was a horrible idea that inevitably gave rise to horrible policy. Yet not every aspect of the American response played into Osama bin Laden’s hand. The prewar regime in Afghanistan could not be permitted to stand. This was not because they were destroying ancient wonders or enforcing barbaric laws. The legitimate imperative was a function of the Taliban’s refusal to cooperate in essential counterterrorist operations.

It could be argued that the American approach to seeking that cooperation was so dictatorial and insulting that immediate cooperation would constitute being bullied. Yet the Al Qaeda threat was real, and effectively neutralizing it would have served American national security as well as America’s national lust for blood. It is hard to deny the disastrous nature of doing so much more to focus on the satisfaction of that bloodlust and so much less to advance an effective security agenda. Yet it is also hard to deny that the pursuit of regime change in Afghanistan was an essential component of any credible American security agenda.

Beyond having some justification, it seems that the initial campaign in Afghanistan benefited from some forethought. Rather than sweep in with overwhelming force and impose martial law throughout the territory, Western invaders formed alliances with indigenous factions already uneasy with Taliban rule. Joined by soldiers from many other nations, American military personnel provided decisive support to these indigenous factions. Yet it would be Afghani fighters on the front lines of the greatest battles against the Taliban. Thus the military victories were much more than triumphs of foreign powers — they were also triumphs in a genuine liberation of Afghanistan.

Obviously this is a sharp contrast from Iraq. It is not the only one. While few other nations were eager to support the American invasion of Iraq, successful regime change in Afghanistan was viewed as a worthwhile goal from almost every part of the globe. Even so, America’s leadership role has always remained clear. NATO’s function coordinating military operations in Afghanistan influences that, but even more influential is the historic place of the United States in all of this.

Alas, American leadership in Afghanistan means that America’s present political leadership has the final say in terms of occupation activities. This is problematic on multiple levels. At the foundation is the sheer simple-mindedness and unrealistic idealism evident in White House work product up to this point in the 21st century. To hear Richard Perle reflecting on the commerce at a Kabul street market, one would think haggling over the price of toothpaste was prohibited under Taliban rule. Much of American foreign policy seems to be driven by the foolish belief that all problems around the world are caused by a lack of capitalism and can be solved by the spread of it.

Making matters worse is the fact that whatever brainpower is available for shaping American foreign policy is largely consumed by the situation in Iraq. Rushing to do battle with a fabricated threat is never good for the outcome of ongoing conflict with a real threat. If national attention had not been so profoundly misdirected, how would things be different? Would there be such severe compromises when it comes to personnel and equipment deployed in the hunt for bin Laden? Would a policy of killing up to thirty innocent Afghanis per Taliban or Al Qaeda suspect targeted by an air strike have gone unquestioned for so long for so long?

The challenge the world faced after discovering just how potent a terrorist attack can be was not an easy one. Had it been the sort of challenge that could be overcome with raw firepower or astronomical spending, then it would have been easy from an American perspective. Instead it was, and remains, a challenge that requires sophisticated, sometimes even delicate, action. Technocratic pragmatism, not fuzzy jingoism, sheds light on the best possible policies to guide this action.

Fortunately, the way Afghanistan will be left after foreign military occupation ceases remains an open question. Reliance on indigenous forces in the beginning struck a tone that continues to resound pleasingly in the ears of many Afghani people. Insofar as the Taliban were ever popular, it was because they were linked to the insurgency that drove out Soviet invaders. The greater freedom of democratic self-governance remains appealing to many. Yet every instance of overkill in counterterrorist operations, every instance of Western rhetoric clashing with evident facts, every instance of U.S. officials applying pressure to Hamid Karzai’s regime — these undermine the prospect of a future in which most of Afghanistan is committed to secular self-rule.

When speaking out against The Global War on Terror, it is important to remember that it is a rhetorical device to legitimize some horrible security policy by lumping those measures in with sound security policy. It is not entirely stupid. Democratizing Afghanistan was, and remains, sound security policy. The approach taken was not perfect, but it was also not the demented imperialist approach pursued in Iraq.

Should the call for political change effectively dismantle the useless and counterproductive elements of existing counterterrorism policy, it is vital that it should not go further and also dismantle useful counterterrorism measures. International cooperation has already become essential to national as well as global security. Given some positive turns, Afghanistan could continue to be a nation that will cooperate readily with the United States long after our armies withdraw from their lands.

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What You Should Think About Pervez Musharraf

November 5, 2007

“The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law.”

–Jeremy Bentham

As long as I have walked the Earth, Pakistan has been a complicated place. It was conceived out of religious strife boiling to the surface as the British Empire released its grip over the subcontinent. India has had its share of internal troubles. Even so, governing that vast and diverse land seems easy when compared to Pakistan’s internal problems. Even in the most sophisticated cities, progressive Pakistani people supporting secular governance are at odds with influential religious leaders eager to promote a crude and intolerant distortion of Islam. Then there are some regions that are under Islamabad’s control in name only.

Filled with rugged terrain and a suitably rugged indigenous population, Waziristan is a part of Pakistan. On the border with Afghanistan, Waziristan served as a refuge for Taliban militants fleeing efforts by American and newly empowered Afghani officials to hunt them down. With more than a few Al Qaeda personnel in the mix, this hunt has a legitimate role to play in the fight against terrorism. Yet the matter of Pakistani sovereignty raises serious problems when it comes to pursuing the hunt across that border.

Al Qaeda has long had ties to various tribes indigenous to Waziristan. In addition to being a CIA-backed anti-Soviet guerilla leader and a CIA-hunted anti-American terrorist, Osama bin Laden is also responsible for building roads, schools, and medical facilities in places where related services were previously inadequate, if available at all. This component of his activities improved the quality of life for desperately impoverished people in several parts of the world. It is with that in mind that many Waziri men were happy to take substantial sums of Al Qaeda money in exchange for a pledge to fight alongside the Taliban in defense of Afghanistan against foreign invaders.

Insofar as he may have followed the region with enough interest to pick up on such details, the indebtedness of Waziri men to Al Qaeda financiers did not make George W. Bush happy. It also did not make Pervez Musharraf happy. In one of the many unlikely (and largely unpublicized) twists of the Global War on Terror, Musharraf’s government arranged for Al Qaeda to be repaid. This freed Waziri men from their duty to fight in Afghanistan as a function of honoring debts. Even so, it did not prevent substantial numbers of them from fighting alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda as a matter of principle.

I believe most experts on global security issues would put Pakistan, or perhaps even Waziristan specifically, at the top of a list of likely locations where Osama bin Laden might presently reside. Locals tend to be hostile toward outsiders even if they come from other parts of Pakistan. The U.S. has agreed to allow Pakistan to conduct all counterterrorism operations in that region (and most likely supplied advanced unmanned aerial vehicle technology in support of that mission.) However, it is thought that a major and sustained Pakistani military presence could generate a Waziri insurgency.  Any overt Western military presence surely would.

With all this in mind, it makes sense that the government of Pakistan might be a lot more uptight about maintaining control than in a place like the United States, where the idea of violent rebellion against federal authorities is only appealing to a fringe of extremists and the occasional little doomsday cult. The practical challenges of dealing with an insurgency among indigenous people, allied with terrorists and residing in mountain country, makes a brute force crackdown by the Pakistani army undesirable. On the other hand, exercising such limited control over a probable Al Qaeda haven poses problems of its own.

It is against this backdrop we see some truly bizarre antics taking place in Islamabad lately. Those who would challenge President-General Musharraf through the democratic process are not at all like the “extremists” that justify global concerns. For the most part, these challengers want to shore up Paksitani civil liberties, place an elected official above military officers in the chain of command (as is the case in the U.S. and so many other democratic regimes,) and rally support for progressive secular values. Surely a female head of state in Pakistan is a move away from, rather than toward, Al Qaeda’s call for hardline theocratic governance of Muslim societies.

Then there is the focus on lawyers. In addition to efforts at preventing judicial oversight of the previous Pakistani national election, Musharraf has ordered a roundup of legal advocates associated with Benazir Bhutto’s political party. If an emergency decree to ban public protest is intended to prevent large progressive gatherings that would serve as ideal targets for terrorists, then why also try to prevent lawyers from going about their role in a particularly murky incarnation of the democratic process?

That sort of action makes it difficult to take seriously Musharraf’s assertion that his recent behavior is focused on containing terrorist threats rather than silencing legitimate democratic opposition to his Presidency. It is as if he has taken a page from the Rove-Bush-Cheney playbook — pursuing policies that will only strengthen actual terrorist movements even as he abuses his authority to crush civilized peaceful movements constituting a loyal opposition. I can only wonder if our President regrets not having the power to jail Nancy Pelosi et al. as an alternative to allowing the 2006 elections to go forward as they did.

So far the advice from “the leader of the free world” to the leader of a part of the world that just became a great deal less free has been simple. Though he has made a half-hearted appeal to restore Pakistani civil liberties, Bush’s more pointed counsel has been that President-General Musharraf should dispense with the “General” in his title. Yet I understand, and perhaps even feel some relief, that there has been no rush into more decisive action yet.  This complex situation does place the American President in a tricky situation.

Were the U.S. to scale back aid to Pakistan or undertake other sanctions, the Musharraf regime could become less hostile to Al Qaeda. Some reports hold that Pervez Musharraf and Osama bin Laden generate fairly close results in opinion polls of the Pakistani public. On the other hand, never going beyond softspoken condemnation of this enormous setback for Pakistani democracy calls into question the validity of America’s commitment to spreading democracy as a means to marginalize extremist movements in the Muslim world.

Foreign affairs would be a very simple matter if everything could really be boiled down to, “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” Shortly after the September 11th attacks, publicly as well as privately, that stark choice was conveyed to the government of Pakistan. In hindsight it should become clear to more people what was immediately evident to me on witnessing our President’s crude approach — foreign affairs are almost never handled best with a simple approach. We can dumb down our policies as much as our leaders desire, but the world will continue to turn with all the same complexities and nuances . . . and perhaps a few more for failure to engage realistically with those complications in the past.