The 'Good War' Isn't

Afghanistan Looks Increasingly Like An Unwinnable Quagmire. We Need An Exit Strategy.

August 25, 2009|By Patrick Seale

Whatever the outcome of last week's Afghan elections - the results are due Sept. 17 - the cruel fact is that the Afghan war is a deadly trap. It makes no difference whether Hamid Karzai or his former foreign minister Abdallah Abdallah is declared the winner. Rather than pouring in more troops, the United States and its NATO allies should urgently seek an exit strategy from that unfortunate country.

The war in Afghanistan has lasted eight years, with no end in sight. It has claimed 780 American lives and more than 200 British ones. It has cost the American taxpayer $220 billion which, had it been spent on development, could have transformed not only Afghanistan but its neighbors as well. The war is being widely compared with Vietnam. The time to get out must surely be approaching.

Waged to overthrow the Taliban, the war has mushroomed into a ferocious yet unwinnable campaign against the fiercely Islamic and xenophobic Pashtuns, who straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border and are Afghanistan's dominant community.

In such tribal country, where the government's writ barely runs, it is well-nigh impossible to say who is a Taliban fighter and who is simply an armed villager, anxious to defend his fields and family.

President Barack Obama and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown have repeatedly claimed that the war is being waged to protect Western society from terrorist attack - to prevent another Sept. 11. But one could argue the opposite: The longer the war continues, the more Afghans and Pakistanis are killed and the more intrusive the Western military presence, the greater the likelihood that enraged Muslims in different parts of the world will want to hit back at the "enemy."

Al-Qaeda has long since ceased to be a centrally controlled, highly structured organization. It is an idea, a franchise, an inspiration to some and a danger to others. It is best fought not with guns but on the level of ideas.

Mr. Obama has clearly recognized this when he argues for reconciliation with the world of Islam. He has promised to announce numerous initiatives to promote cooperation with Muslim countries in the fields of science, education, technology and health. He has also understood that withdrawing from Iraq and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a two-state solution will draw out a great deal of the poison from the West's relations with Islam.

All this is admirable and should be applauded and encouraged. But, at the same time, Mr. Obama seems to believe that the war in Afghanistan is a "war of necessity." This is a mistake - perhaps the central mistake of his foreign policy. He must correct it, or sink in the swamp.

Afghanistan is a complex mosaic of tribes, regions, languages and ethnic groups. There is considerable doubt whether a centralized presidential system, such as Mr. Karzai has set up with American backing, which concentrates power, wealth and patronage in Kabul, is really the best way to govern Afghanistan.

Elections, such as the recent presidential one, are to be welcomed. But no one could claim that Afghanistan is ready for anything like a functioning democracy. What the great bulk of the population seem to want more than anything else are jobs, drinking water, electricity, freedom from the oppression of warlords and other local bosses, and a reasonably fair justice system to settle disputes.

But what they also want is an end to the Western military presence, to sudden assaults on peaceful villages, to the missiles fired from drones that shatter families and kill children - in other words, an end to the war.

It is by no means self-evident that young Western men and women should go to their death in Afghanistan in order to impose a Western model of society on a population that (in its vast majority) wants none of it.

What Mr. Obama and his Western allies should urgently devise is a new formula. Instead of waging war, they should summon Afghanistan's principal tribal leaders, as well as the leaders of the regional states, to a great conference to talk peace. No doubt a pledge to withdraw foreign troops would be a salutary shock. At the same time, a pledge to pour in billions of dollars in development aid could be a great incentive to the Afghans to sort out their quarrels and govern themselves without outside interference.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of "The Struggle for Syria," "Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East" and "Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire." This article is distributed by Agence Global.

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