- Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 January 2010 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 13 January 2010 05:00
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There are a lot of Democrats who aren’t happy about the president’s decision to commit additional forces to Afghanistan. They are convinced this is an un-winnable war and can’t help but make that all too easy leap to saying that this will be just another Vietnam. Respectfully, I think they’re wrong on both counts. President Obama didn’t make this decision casually.
First of all, Afghanistan is not Iraq. Iraq is a war that, for all its terrible costs, was fought because of a determined and single-minded desire on the part of one administration. Afghanistan is different. There is a history to our involvement in the region that many of us don’t recall, or, I suspect, choose not to. Or, maybe we have simply forgotten. But it’s this history that makes a sound moral case for why we just can’t pack up and go home.
Just go back in time a little, say, to 1973. Afghanistan wasn’t a war zone in those days. It was actually a rather pretty country and its economy generated a healthy GDP. Then that government (a monarchy of sorts) was overthrown and replaced with a Communist regime. This didn’t alarm the west all that much (after all, who cared about Afghanistan?), but when the communists were toppled in the late ’70s, the Soviet Union, wanting to secure its puppet state, invaded. That turned out to be a terrible decision.
At first, the Russians were well on their way to subduing the country. Their primary resistance, sort of a confederation of tribes, traditionalists, and fundamentalists, was called the Mujahideen. They weren’t necessarily a lovable bunch, but they were, at least in the eyes of the west, tweaking the nose of what Ronald Reagan called the “Evil Empire.” That was an attractive notion in the ’80s and slowly but surely the CIA, with help from supporters in Congress (see Charlie Wilson’s War with Tom Hanks – great movie), started funneling resources in their direction. The Mujahideen organization became a more disciplined fighting force, supplies flowed through Pakistan, and, eventually, they turned the tide and made the Afghan War a major drain on the Soviet military.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were lots of reasons why, but one of the most notable was the war in Afghanistan. And, that’s where our involvement in this country came to an abrupt halt. The Cold War was over and so was our interest in this distant and seemingly irrelevant country. Afghanistan didn’t really have a government. Its economy was barely functional, public facilities were almost nonexistent and infrastructure, what there was of it, was badly damaged. Land mines and explosives, left over by the tens of thousands, were a daily hazard. But most noteworthy there was now an organized military force, formerly the Mujahideen — young men, well trained and well armed, with a dangerous cause and no place to go. The United States had packed up and gone home, and the Soviet Union was history. We provided no significant aid or nation building. All that remained were the makings of a very dangerous situation.
The dispossessed warriors of the Mujahideen were ripe targets for international Islamic extremism and the formation of Taliban. The rest of the story is something we all know pretty well. But as we debate the future of Afghanistan, we can’t ignore the events that got us to this point. They didn’t all begin on Sept. 11. In a way, through our actions during the Cold War, however justified they seemed at the time, and our inaction following, we played a big part in creating this situation. Therefore, we can’t morally ignore it.
President Bush, to his credit, had the Taliban on the run in 2002, but then, following the invasion of Iraq, he turned America’s attention away from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this neglect of the Afghan theater allowed the Taliban, and their associated extremists to once again get the upper hand. Frankly, we lost an opportunity to put these wackos out of business for good. But that opportunity is now past. The president has to work with the hand he’s been dealt. It’s hard to tell what the answer may look like in Afghanistan, but the model that General Petraeus has in mind looks sound. He wants to stabilize the security of the populated areas and establish some kind of accommodation with the tribal regions.
It would be easy enough to claim that President Obama has taken a wrong course; that he is going down the road Lyndon Johnson did in 1965. A lot of progressives, liberals if you prefer that term, have said just that. And frankly, I understand their anxiety. Many think we should just leave Afghanistan. But President Obama knows his history, understands how we got there and. most of all. feels a moral commitment to the people of this desperate and struggling region. It’s not war mongering. There is nothing the United States could possibly want in Afghanistan. Save, perhaps, to do the right thing.