Good questions on Afghanistan

International Politics, Politics, US Politics

Over time, the place which the Afghanistan war retains in the American political conversation has become reduced to a marginal subject with an overwhelmingly symbolic role. As debate raged over the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq invasion, Afghanistan became more of an abstraction: the blank screen upon which the opponents projected the contrast and comparison they needed for their argument.

Image used under a CC license from Flickr user vendrán mañana

Image used under a CC license from Flickr user vendrán mañana

For Republicans, Afghanistan was Iraq’s little brother, mostly ignored but useful as illustration for the case that we’re fighting a global, interconnected War on Terror. For most Democrats and Obama supporters, meanwhile, Afghanistan has become “the good war”, the other war, the war you do support. The waning fortunes of the allied troops in Afghanistan appear most only as useful demonstration for the argument that Bush dropped the ball on Al-Qaeda and that Iraq was a ‘distraction’.

Either way, the answer seems almost unanimous: we need to stay in Afghanistan. And finish the job. The Republicans think it’s important – they’re totally about the War on Terror. Hey, it was their idea! The Democrats, too, want to invest more resources in Afghanistan; their very urge to do so is the proof of their military toughness bona fides, the deflection of any accusation of pacifism.

Now I’m no expert on Afghanistan. As a layman on the subject, I’m actually sympathetic to the Democratic argument on Afghanistan. You should have kept focusing there in the first place, instead of marching off into Iraq. There’s also no doubt that the realpolitik, the-enemies-of-our-enemies-are-our-friends strategies of the 1980s, when the US empowered radical fundamentalists and warlords to battle against the Soviet-imposed regime, were a bust (bin Laden sent his regards). So it made sense to go for a more intense engagement, aimed at establishing some kind of civic government, and actively promoting social change by funding education, for example.

But I do know that the questions that Alex Massie raised earlier this month are ones that are conspicuously missing in the political debate, even to the extent that Afghanistan figures in it at all:

We like to think of Afghanistan as the “good” war. But what does that mean? Allied troops have been in Afghanistan for six years now and a military victory remains elusive. Is this merely a matter of resources? If it’s not, then how useful are promises to pour more troops into Afghanistan? And what does victory look like anyway? How sustainable are current operations? [A]re we more concerned with “winning” the “war on drugs” than with pacifying the Hindu Kush and Helmand province? To what extent is the drug war compromising our ability to achieve our other objectives? Furthermore, what sort of threat does the Taliban (and a rump al-Qaeda) in Afghanistan pose to the non-Afghan world? Is it containable absent a military occupation? How long should our current occupation last? Dare we tell the public? Can we win? What are the adverse consequences, if any, of winning?

The political debate is entirely driven by the elections, and has been so for the better part of a year. It’s in neither Presidential candidate’s interest to raise or confront these questions. The result is that you don’t see the news media focusing on them either. But as soon as the winner takes office, they will be waiting for him. Will too much time have been lost by then?

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