There has been a lot of talk about how knowledge that American and other troops would withdraw from Afghanistan would encourage the Afghanis to step up to the plate and fight the Taliban on their own. That view has been convenient in the US. It suggests that Americans can withdraw without consequence for the war there.
That’s really a very strange view and suggests a complete inability to put ourselves in the place of Afghanis. Even very small children understand that things look different to other people. Americans are very experienced at democracy. We should be experienced at figuring out how things look to politicians. But it has been pretty obvious that Americans have not been able to put themselves in the shoes of Afghanis, or for that matter, any of the Middle Eastern or Asian peoples.
So we just get put out with Karzai because he has not been playing according to the American rule book. Instead he has been negotiating with the Taliban. Surprise! We announce that we are going to pull out and he’s trying to make a deal with the enemy! Nor has he taken on the warlords that we have come to despise. The guy has been behaving like a politician. How could he do that? Don’t they have elections? He should be behaving like an American agent, not an Afghani politician. After all, who established the elections there and put him in office. He should be grateful. Instead, he is behaving like a politician. Amazing.
So let’s play it straight. Our pull out is going to mean that the US loses influence in Afghanistan. Gratefulness is not a political strategy and the Afghanis are going to adjust to their new reality.
There are some other new realities. The world is not very tolerant of occupation of someone else’s country. It does recognize retaliation. But not occupation. The world was horrified by 9/11 and it did rally behind our effort to curtail the threat, behind the initial entry into Afghanistan. And in 1990 it did rally behind teaching Saddam Hussein a lesson. But in 2003 it did not rally behind forced regime change and conquest, in Iraq. That war made our motives in Afghanistan seem much less pure and, despite initial support, the world has now recoiled against the long term occupation of Afghanistan.
All of that affects our ability to achieve our objectives. Had Mr. Bush understood the very real constraints this world imposes, we could be in a much better position now. Invasion is much easier than occupation. Occupation requires a much larger army than the US and its allies have been willing to sustain in the field. And while invasion divides and demoralizes a weaker enemy, occupation unites opposition. Which is to say that overreaction is less effective than a measured reaction.
So what now after all these mistakes? We have made the point that we will respond, with great force and very destructively to attacks on our soil. But our presence on the ground offends Afghani patriots. It’s not all about the U.S. Americans need to understand that, for better or worse, people are nationalistic about their own countries. Invaders are not popular. And it puts Afghanis in danger from our attacks, and in danger from the Taliban if they cooperate with us. There are good reasons for Afghanis not to welcome us.
So it’s time to return to the strong moral position America and it’s allies once had – that we will defend ourselves, we will retaliate and make anyone who would try to harm us pay dearly, but we do not seek to rule. In other words it’s time to find a way to leave Afghanistan to the Afghanis so long as they leave us alone.
This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 20, 2010.