Friday, March 27, 2009

Second Try

David Brooks is fresh back from Afghanistan. He reports that the war there is winnable and lists the reasons why.

[I]t is simply wrong to say that Afghanistan is a hopeless 14th-century basket case. 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.

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.

I am old enough to remember reading columns that had the same hopeful outlook about Vietnam in 1965. And while I sure don’t wish our efforts or our soldiers any ill will — after all, this is the place we should have devoted our full attention to after the attacks on September 11, 2001, not Iraq, and the Taliban is truly a dangerous entity — I wonder just how much insight Mr. Brooks or anyone can truly gain in six days and emerge as sure of victory as he is.

Our goal in the Vietnam war was to have it emerge as a peaceful and productive nation with a stable government. That goal was achieved: today Vietnam is a stable nation and willing trading partner with us, selling us everything from tennis shoes to raw materials. The catch is that it was achieved at a horrible price — millions of lives lost and scars that we still re-open every time someone runs for president if the United States — all because we tried to impose our will on a nation and culture that was engaged in its own civil war, we backed a corrupt and cynical regime simply because they said they weren’t Commies, and we lost. How similar is that to Afghanistan? Logistically it’s a whole different world, and it can be argued that we have a duty to hunt down the people who attacked us, but is the goal that much different? This time we need to remember that Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans and as hard as it might be to accept, not everyone in the world wants what we have.

No one in their right mind wants us to fail in Afghanistan, and no one in their right mind wants the return to the Middle Ages represented by religious fanaticism — in any form from any belief system. But we can’t forget that what may emerge in that rugged nation isn’t what we want for the Afghans, but it should be what they want.