Now that it seems likely that Obama will increase troop levels in Afghanistan, I’m forced to rely on my “gut” instincts in saying that I think it’s a mistake. I have no choice. My gut tells me that our limited goals for “victory” are still beyond our ability at this time. Of course the reason I have to rely on my “gut” is because I don’t know enough about that country, and its history, to have confidence in my assessment of the situation.
But I have no other choice now. None of us do. The President isn’t “dithering” on this. Even the experts are hedging on it.
I felt a lot more secure with the “surge” in Iraq. By trial and error — a lot of the second — we got to see what the people of Iraq wanted for themselves, and were capable of. I saw how much they were willing to sacrifice, and what my eyes told me was encouraging: the Iraqi people could stabilize their country because they were a corrupt society.
That’s not a criticism. For democracy to take hold, indeed for any stable system of laws to function, there must be a cohesive, strong segment of the populace who want stability and predictability. They have families, and they want to provide basic needs, to prosper and to plan for the future. If a society falls under the control of warring sects of fanatics, as happened in Iraq, the majority of people can no longer function in a normal way. What the surge did, among other things, was to allow private and public Iraqi institutions to infiltrate and to corrupt the fringes of the fanatics, not the hard-core, in order to decrease the number of terrorist acts to a level that could be managed by the majority.
Bribery is absolutely essential for this. The fanatics who are open to bribery have personal agendas that exist alongside their irrational zealotry. They can allow themselves to believe that total victory is inevitable, so why not slow it down, just a little, to let themselves enjoy some secret material pleasures. Another enticement, and one that can be even stronger than bribes of money, is the removal of rivals within the sect. It is likely, in fact, that some of the arrests and killings of terrorist leaders in Iraq by Iraqi and U.S. forces came after tipoffs from other terrorists in the group.
But whatever the elements of corruption, at least of the political kind, the durability of the relationship depends upon the conviction, by both parties, that it can continue as long as the terms of the agreement are met. This entails, by necessity, that the corrupted terrorists have a genuine faith that the stabilizing institutions of society will be able to keep them under control, in effect to neutralize all of their efforts to destroy the society that is buying them off.
I don’t think that can happen in Afghanistan because I don’t think it has evolved to that level of corruption, at least not yet. The general population must have the will to fight the terrorist groups. This took many years in Lebanon, and now Iraq (knock wood). But Afghanistan is still stuck in a pre-corrupt stage where the terrorists of competing groups, including the Taliban, feel much less threatened by Afghan institutions that promote political and economic stability. I admit that I don’t feel confident about this assessment. I know even less about Afghanistan than I do about Iraq. Perhaps my “gut instincts” are based only on a stereotype of all tribal cultures, namely that they consist of loosely organized tribes and clans dispersed over large, undeveloped areas that have very few centers of strong commercial activity. In spite of recognition by the world community, no unifying national identity has yet taken hold within its peoples. The rule of law will remain the rule of raw power, simple fear.
If this is where Afghanistan is today, it looks very good for the Taliban. They may be able to continue to terrorize the majority of the people, who have never been sufficiently inter-connected to develop stable, rewarding economic relationships. Without these, no peaceful, durable political system is possible. I don’t feel confident that a continued American military presence will tip the balance in favor of any indigenous Afghan class committed to political stability, which is the only way that the terrorists can be controlled, let alone eliminated.