The Afghanistan Rorschach

People read the Afghan War through thick ideological spectacles that magnify what they focus on and that draw the unintegrated elements in the picture to the blurred periphery. They read Afghanistan as they read the political life of the planet. They understand its history and current state of affairs, and make predictions for its future, according to their ideological predispositions. Of course, most people do this most of the time about most things, political or not, and it is to be expected. It is just that complex situations – situations in which we are most in need of thinkers and strategists able to break free of the perceptual constraints that narrow vision – are the very situations in which people fall back most readily on automatic thinking.

A more isolationist, libertarian strain on the Right would have us avoid such messy entanglements, and even already entangled, withdraw. More mainstream, imperial conservatives argue steadfastness in pursuit of ultimate victory, and since a war of the nature of Afghanistan, and what was made of it, will never be pursued with a full-throated national battle cry, anything short of ultimate victory will always be attributed by these conservatives, as for Vietnam, to the absence of that steadfastness. Convenient, now, for such conservatives, is that the war is being pursued by a Democratic president. While elements of the Left already think that Obama is waging the Afghan War and other battles against terrorism too much like a Republican, for these conservatives, the only way Obama could wage war adequately would be to do it as an actual Republican. Failure in Afghanistan, for them, however defined, will always be his fault, and not the product of conditions.

A far Left strain, reflexively critical of any American exercise of power, even after attack, opposed the Afghan War from the start. Distracted for six years by Iraq, this element now finds the current messy state of affairs in Afghanistan conducive to its automatic assertions of a war’s dubious morality and predictions of strategic futility. It is worth noting on that point that the same prediction was made of the once horrific Iraq War, which, think what one wishes of its origin and ultimate outcome, has not turned out to be “another Vietnam.” Nation building, an overweening project in war of some on the Right, is an easy target for many on the Left who curiously, contradictorily, put much store in world building.

A quieter, less certain voice on the world-building Left is properly concerned about the rights of women in Afghanistan, and the further depths to which they may return after any kind of compromised U.S. withdrawal. In a fascinating way, it is this issue of women that manages to concentrate many of the contradictions in the Afghan situation and in people’s arguments about it. The Right will vocalize strenuously about human and political rights when that line reinforces an already decided strategic concern – in Iran, for instance. Latin America, where such human rights concerns were never well integrated by the Right with U.S. economic interests, never has drawn similar attention – unless the offender was perceived to be on the Left, like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez. Some on the Left will sing the praises of human rights so long as that song does not disharmonize with the melody of American militarism. So now, as fears rise among some about those potential consequences for women – witness this week’s Time Magazine – a counter narrative is already being written by the war’s most ardent Left opponents that the rights of Afghan women are already again in decline and cannot be salvaged by an American presence.

Here is some interesting insight the other day from The New York Times:

As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.

“Women do not want war, but none of them want the Taliban of 1996 again; no one wants to be imprisoned in the yards of their houses,” said Rahima Zarifi, the Women’s Ministry representative from the northern Baghlan Province.

Interviews around the country with at least two dozen female members of Parliament, government officials, activists, teachers and young girls suggest a nuanced reality — fighting constricts women’s freedoms nearly as much as a Taliban government, and conservative traditions already limit women’s rights in many places.

Women, however, express a range of fears about a Taliban return, from political to domestic — that they will be shut out of negotiations about any deals with the insurgents and that the Taliban’s return would drive up bride prices, making it more profitable for a family to force girls into marriage earlier.

The insights here include two contradictory ones: the current state of women’s rights is more nuanced than the counter narrative, by self-serving inclination, will relate to us, and if Afghan women, despite their fears, “do not want war,” what almost surely Quixotic battle should be waged by foreign forces on their behalf?

Grand battles on behalf of the highest liberal ideals cannot and should not be fought by the United States alone, and the Afghan War, despite all NATO cover is a U.S. war. Such idealistic commitments, along with the protection of economic and ideological interests too far flung, form an unsustainable strategic course for the country. However Left or Right would burden us with either, as well as steadfast commitment to a strategic course urged by the Right in part because it is a Democratic president who might relent from it, these commitments should be avoided. But none were ever the reason the U.S. went to Afghanistan. The U.S. went to Afghanistan not to overthrow the Taliban in righteous indignation at its barbarity. The nation went to deny its Islamic terrorist enemies a national base from which to operate. The role of Pakistan greatly complicates the problem, but to point out formidable complication is not to eliminate the problem or to rationalize ignoring it because it suits our ideological bias. It seems clear that the Obama administration does not now conceive of building a nation in Afghanistan to make Americans happy and proud. It hopes through battlefield success to moderate conditions so as to enable an accommodation with Taliban elements that will join a government which will not welcome destabilizing terrorists. In the worst case, that would be another Paris Peace Accords. In the best case, there would still, in the region, be the threats from Pakistan to confront.

The next year, a full year after the surge and leading to the target date for some kind of initiated draw down of forces, should reveal a lot. In any case, we need to read the text before us and not the one behind our eyes.



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1 thought on “The Afghanistan Rorschach

  1. Thank you, Jay, for another thoughtful essay.

    This morning in my e-mail was the copy of an article by Leslie H. Gelb, “The Real Goal in Afghanistan”, via Have you read it? I’d be interested in your opinion of it.

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