To find our way in Afghanistan, we need to find our compass.
Our moral compass.
General David Petraeus, according to reports, is pushing for the Obama administration to add the Haqqani network to the terrorist organizations list. They are one of the principal groups who are blowing up everyone in suicide attacks in Afghanistan. Senator Carl Levin (D.-Michigan) made a similar suggestion upon returning to Washington from a trip to Afghanistan last week.
See Mark Landler and Thom Shanker, “U.S. May Label Pakistan Militants as Terrorists,” New York Times, July 13, 2010 (July 14 print edition).
Petraeus’ inclination, as reported, provides a ray of light, a ray of hope. A hint of moral clarity.
With that clarity, perhaps there is another road in Afghanistan other than turning its people over to warlords and terrorists like the Haqqani network. Perhaps there is another path other than striking deals with Pakistani generals and shady Pakistani intelligence elements who have been backing the Taliban. Perhaps we can find another way to leave the country without abandoning its women, or surrendering hegemony over the South to Pakistan acting through its ties to Afghan insurgent groups, planting the seeds for future civil war between the North and the South.
The huge question is, of course, “Why wasn’t the Haqqani network already on the terrorist organizations list?
Not only was it not on the list, but we have gone aong with Karzai’s efforts to remove a large number of names of Taliban leaders from the U.N. sanctions list.
What are the reasons for omitting the Haqqani network from the terrorist organizations list, for seeking removal of Taliban leaders from the U.N. sanctions list, and for negotiating with Pakistan to get them to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table?
The administration needs to be candid with the American people about the kind of Afghanistan it is prepared to negotiate with Karzai, the Haqqani network, and the Taliban.
What we get out of Washington are platitudes about these groups accepting the Afghan constitution, and laying down their arms. What does this mean, what does this look like when you flesh it out?
The reasons we have heard so far to justify these actions, which appear to be based both on dubious assumptions and on dubious moral propositions, need to be subjected to intense and continuing scrutiny–in the full light of day.
What President Obama has apparently failed to grasp is that without a moral compass, the U.S. and NATO can neither achieve their essential goals in Afghanistan nor exit on terms short of catastrophic defeat.
Viewed from afar, at the present the White House’s only goal seems to be to help Karzai solidify his grip on power so we can beat a hasty retreat. This is a harsh judgment but one, it is submitted, that is supported by the facts.
It is a view, moreover, that is shared by many in the region, who look more to American actions than to the finely-tuned policy pronouncements that emanate from Washington.
Hopefully, Petraeus can bring moral clarity to his job and to the president’s thinking about Afghanistan.
The moral compass Obama must find and use is an American one. The American people will not support a war without moral purpose for an indefinite period of time.
A democratic path?
It is time for President Obama, with Petraeus’ assistance and experience building the institutions of democracy in Iraq, to reconsider the now-jettisoned democratic project in Afghanistan.
That project foundered on the rock of U.S. passivity in the face of Karzai’s massive fraud in the presidential elections last August, and its unwillingness to open up the political process by forcing Karzai to fix the electoral machinery so a fair second round election for president could be held.
Karzai may be the obstacle on the democratic path.
See Chibli Mallat, “Law, war and the Petraeus doctrine: How to take democracy seriously in Iraq and the AfPak theater,” The Daily Star (Beirut), June 24, 2010. Interestingly, Mallat suggests Karzai be persuaded to leave or removed from office, with arresting him for the election fraud being one option.
Yet the democratic path may be the only alternative that gives Afghan soldiers and police a vision of the future that is worth fighting for.
As President Obama noted at his West Point commencement speech on May 22, 2010,
(P)reparing for today, I turned to…the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes. And reflecting on his Civil War experience, he said, and I quote, “To fight out a war you must believe in something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching.” Holmes went on, “More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out.”
Our challenge in Afghanistan, also in a civil war setting, is quite similar. We must help the Afghan soldier and policeman find and have something to believe in and something to want with all of his or her might. Only then will an Afghan army and an Afghan police force be able to take over from the ISAF forces and defend their country against the Taliban.
The Taliban have such a belief, anchored in part in their religious faith.
What can the United States and NATO offer an Afghan soldier or policeman that can counter that?
This is perhaps the most critical question in Afghanistan, and one whose answer will largely determine the success of our counterinsurgency strategy there.
Free and fair elections and representative government, however crude? The rule of law, at least as a roadmap to be followed? Some form of democracy?
This was the path we followed in Iraq. It is time to reconsider the democratic project in Afghanistan. With all options open for consideration.
The democratic road may be the only one by which we can get to where we want to go, period. Moreover, it may be the only road that can maintain the support of the American people, and the support of the peoples of the other democracies with whom we are allied, for a war that will surely continue for quite some time.
Let us consider a central fact. America’s greatest weapon in the world is not its drone aircraft or its special operations forces, however useful these may be at the right moment and in the right place.
America’s greatest weapon is its story and the vision it has pursued for over two centuries. This vision is a vision of democracy, of respect for law and individual rights, and of the security and prosperity that are possible in a democratic society governed by law.
It is parochial to assume that our vision and our values have no appeal to the people of Afghanistan, or that our vision and values are weaker than and cannot triumph over the those of the Taliban.
To ask America to fight in Afghanistan without this vision and without these values, is to ask the country to fight with one arm tied behind its back, in a long and grinding struggle which ultimately it cannot win.
To engage the people of Afghanistan in a common struggle, not for warlordism or a coalition with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, but for the achievement of commonly shared values, and for the security that can be achieved through a government based on the consent of the governed and the rule of law, would be to commit to the democratic road.
As suggested above, the democratic road in Afghanistan may be the only one that gets us where we want to go. Petraeus, with his intellectual grasp of the critical importance of governance in counterinsurgency doctrine and his direct experience in Iraq, must already sense this.
Where would Iraq be today if it were not for steadfast U.S. support for the development of democratic institutions, and for adherence to the rule of law? It’s worth thinking about.
It’s worth thinking about now. The September 18 National Assembly elections are barely two months away. Yet instead of focusing on building a democratic process starting with those elections, Secretary of State Clinton is off to Pakistan to see what kind of a deal we can make with the Pakistanis on Afghanistan.
It was on just such a trip in November, it will be recalled, that we reportedly struck a deal with the Pakistanis the outlines of which we seem to be following. It resulted in our abandoning negotiations in Kabul to form a national unity government with Abdullah and Karzai, or to proceed to replace those in the electoral commission behind Karzai’s fraud so that a fair second round election could be held.
Why we are playing Karzai’s game, instead of the democratic game in Kabul, is a question which calls out for a full and complete answer to the American people from the President of the United States.
The Trenchant Observer
Comments are invited. Please add to the discussion and tell the Observer why he is wrong. Or right. Or some of one and some of the other.
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