2008 December 30 Tuesday
Fouad Ajami On Obama Shift Toward Afghanistan

Secular Shia Lebanese immigrant academic Fouad Ajami, former unofficial adviser to George H. W. Bush, writes disapprovingly of the Obama Administration's plans to bail on Iraq while fighting the supposed good war in Afghanistan.

The new cause shall be a return to the struggle for Afghanistan. This is the liberal narrative: the bad, unilateral "war of choice" in Iraq, the good, multilateral "war of necessity" in Afghanistan. The doves on Iraq can thus be hawks on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. The strategic gurus who preached that Iraq is a hopeless, artificial state put together by Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence can try for victory and nation building in the unforgiving tribal lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. If there is an artificial state in our world of nations, Afghanistan must be its closest approximation. If there is a false national boundary -- mocked by ethnicity and historical allegiance -- it is the Durand Line, drawn up by British power in the 1890s, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, through the lands of the Pashtuns. Afghanistan could yet thwart President Bush's successors, frustrate them in the way Iraq frustrated him.

Iraq still is an artificial state with the Kurds already ruling their area with de facto independence. Will the Arabs be able to entice or force them to stay in Iraq? Or will they reach some sort of agreement where the Kurds pretend to stay in Iraq while continuing to govern their area without Iraqi Arab involvement?

Ajami is right that Afghanistan has an even larger dose of tribalism than Iraq. Compare Afghanistan's fertility rate of 6.58 with Iraq's fertility rate of 3.9. The assorted Afghani tribal groups can afford to lose a lot of their young males at war. Plus, they do not have to listen to pacifist women since men dominate.

Note that Ajami doesn't call for splitting up Afghanistan. Would it make sense to shift the Pashtun part of Afghanistan into Pakistan? Or pull the Pashtun parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan together into a 3rd new nation? My guess is that the Pakistani central government would not take kindly to giving territory. But at the same time the Pakistanis might not want more Pashtuns added to the balance of Pakistani politics either.

By one measure the US in Afghanistan is more like the US in Vietnam than the US in Iraq. Pakistan serves as a sanctuary for Taliban fighters to a much greater extent than any neighbor of Iraqi provided sanctuary for militias in Iraq. The war in Vietnam had many differences as well. But achieving a state in Afghanistan that can be labeled "victory" seems hard to me.

I question the intellectual capacity of either of America's two political parties to think rationally about the Middle East. I wish we could wash our hands of it because I do not expect US policy in the region to be anything approaching wise.

What fraction of the US troops withdrawn from Iraq will get shifted to Afghanistan? Will Obama limit the scale of US involvement in Afghanistan in order to free up more money for domestic welfare programs?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2008 December 30 10:48 AM  MidEast Afghanistan

gcochran said at December 30, 2008 11:03 AM:

The upside is education: we're learning more and more about the basic competence and effectiveness of the people who run the show. Maybe, eventually, we'll learn... enough.

Kenelm Digby said at December 31, 2008 4:13 AM:

Sorry to appear pompous and pedantic in having to correct you Randall, but a 'fertility rate 0f 6.8%' (or thereabouts), that you quote is pretty meaningless as the article states that the average fertility (ie number of children born) to an Afghani woman is around 6.8.Fertility rates are not usually given as a percentage as this would be meaningless.Not to be pompous again, but this is Demographics 101.
However, 'population growth rates' are generally given as a percentage increase year-on-year of a particular population - and although they are of course linked to the average fertility rate, they ar a somewhat different concept that smacks of compound interest and exponential growth predictions.
Again , I hope the correction is taken in good faith and no pomposity or 'superioty' is implied or sought.

dchamil said at December 31, 2008 7:30 AM:

Kenelm Digby, here's some pomposity for you: "Wars are Nature's way of making Americans learn geography."

Ned said at December 31, 2008 7:46 AM:

The idea of "nation-building" in a primitive, impoverished, Islamic, tribal place such as Afghanistan is sheer lunacy. When al-Qaeda was using Afghanistan to plot terrorism against Western nations, the right thing to do was to kick them out (or kill them, which would have been even better). Just pay their local rivals to do it. Give them plenty of arms, money and some advisors, if necessary. A little baksheesh goes a long way. But don't expect to find an Afghani Thomas Jefferson or John Locke to establish a democratic regime. Power in a place like Afghanistan means enriching yourself and your own tribe and bashing your enemies. No foreign power has ever been able to conquer Afghanistan, at least not for very long. Britain and Russia found that out to their dismay in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Required texts on this subject include the Harry Flashman series and "The Man Who Would Be King" (which is also an excellent movie). I wonder if Hillary Clinton has read them?

miles said at December 31, 2008 11:57 AM:

I hope we aren't helping feed those 6.58 childred per female, but of course we are.

That is simply an irresponsible birthrate that any homo erectus evovled enough to walk upright should be able to recognize.

Anonymous said at December 31, 2008 2:49 PM:

What is the point in blowing up somebody else's country for years on end ? Is it to give young American men an outlet for their rage against a gov't that imigrates their future to death ? To let them kill Afghans instead of rebelling ? To use Afghans for "training" ? It's a cruelty. It's a crime. Get out of their country. Stay in your own country. Keep everybody else out of your own country. And be happy at home.

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