Sunday, January 18, 2009

The End of the Bush Era: Afghanistan

This is the first in a series of essays, "The End of the Bush Era." It is a list of what I believe are the most prominent successes and failures of this prolific politician who, for better or ill, is going to become an indelible part of history.


It surprises me how much the war in Afghanistan is still supported by Americans.

I understand it was UN-approved, but the US lobbied very hard for it, and nobody wanted to question them at the time. They had many allies in its totally preposterous war in Iraq, so I can see why many naysayers may have bended the American way in 2001, after being shocked by 9/11 and then shivering in fear at what the sleeping giant would do now that it awoke. Other countries, perhaps legitimately, also saw the scale of the attacks and didn't want to fall prey to anything similar.

For my part, though, I still think the invasion of Afghanistan was wrong, both morally and strategically.

What has come of it? Tens of thousands of civilian lives have been lost. What little infrastructure Afghanistan had was pommeled. A country in need of rehabilitation after generations of warfare is seeing yet another war. Drug production has increased many-fold and the black market for opium is flooded with Afghan produce. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are still blogging from their mountain hills, and the Hamid Karzai government has no implementation capacity to distribute and spend the billions of dollars it is receiving in foreign aid.

The Taleban are now back, and the government is now considering negotiating with them.

Why could they not have negotiated with the Taleban back then? Before the lives were lost, before you emptied billions of dollars of missiles and ammunition onto a poor patch of mountainous dirt that's seen enough violence already? Before the Taleban was radicalized any further, like they weren't already radical enough?

The Taleban offered to try Osama bin Laden in their own courts in 2001. The religious council actually politely asked Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan before the invasion, because as much as Osama bin Laden was their guest, they didn't want to get bombed for him.

Don't tell me there was no room for negotiation with those people. They may not have been the paragon of progressive thinking, but violence was not a foregone conclusion.

There were senior, aged members of the Taleban who would see some inkling of reason back then. Most of them are now dead or sidelined by the new hardline extremists who don't have a moral problem in selling drugs to make money like the pre-invasion Taleban did. They will be much harder to negotiate with, if they want to negotiate at all.

Yes, these are the same people that blew up Buddhas out of spite, and wouldn't let girls go to school, but they are also the same people who offered their own forces in support of the operations to free Air India hostages that landed in a hijacked plane in Kandahar in 1999.

They are the same people that destroyed 95% of Afghanistan's poppy culture, on nothing more than the principle of the thing (a fatwa was issued that said taking drugs was forbidden in Islam.)

Consider, for a moment, that the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan was one of their only sources of income. It brought in billions of dollars in informal revenue to an otherwise impoverished country under chronic and crippling sanctions for many years. The worldwide supply of Afghan-made drugs was destroyed almost literally overnight.

The hatred for the Taleban in progressive circles is very strong, the term "Talebanization" is a cuss, representing prudishness on an astronomical scale and the curtailment of individual freedoms. Rightly so. And I must say this: I'm not defending the Taleban. I'm defending empathy, the sanctity of human life, the willingness to negotiate even with someone you have deep differences with, and the use of force only as a last resort.

When the Taleban removed the Northern Alliance from control over Afghanistan, many Afghans breathed a sigh of relief. They didn't like the Taleban any, but they sure were a whole lot better than the warlords of the Northern Alliance. The men were forced to wear beards, and women were barred from many public engagements, but they were still better than the random injustice of the warlords. There was a semblance of order in the country.

Afghanistan has no precedent for an organized government in its recent history (something Iraq has, and so is cause for very cautious optimism there). It is still living in the Dark Ages socially, with feudal lords roaming the countryside, and unaccompanied women in public at genuine risk of grievous harm. Building any kind of civil institution in a region like Afghanistan is going to be difficult.

I wish it the very best. I still remember CNN's Nic Robertson reporting from Afghanistan in 2001 before the invasion, taking great pains to point out that the Afghans have a rich tradition of chivalry, to a fault, in seeing Osama bin Laden as their guest in remembering the aid he rendered them during the Soviet invasion.

Looking forward, though, from my vantage point, all the data points toward one very likely eventuality: the continuation of hostilities. I do very much want to be proven wrong, though.

America was looking for something to bomb after 9/11, and that's a stupid reason to go to war. But this is emblematic of the Bush presidency: twisted, belligerent, and arrogant ideology, mixed with a complete divorce from reality.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)