Just Peace in Afghanistan, a global moral obligation
Q: In the wake of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's dismissal as chief commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Congress is evaluating our policy and presence there. Is it time for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan? Do we have a moral responsibility to stay or to leave?
The United States has a moral obligation to leave Afghanistan a stable country with the capacity to build a strong, independent 21st century state able to provide sustenance and joy to its people. However, this obligation is a global one and we ought to compete as in a race toward reaching this goal.
The wisdom of the Koran teaches: "If God so willed, He could have made you a single People, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtue."(Sura V) The moral obligation of every tribe and nation is to strive toward virtue. In the case of Afghanistan virtues of hospitality, generosity and just peacemaking ought to be the goal. Just peacemaking requires attention to the basic needs of people. Violence is countenanced only as security for those who are building the peaceful capacities of the society. This is the beating heart of a counterinsurgency strategy that is at once frustrating to many of our own military personnel and to the Taliban.
I think that President Obama's July 2011 time ine to begin withdrawal of our fighting force is a wise decision. Counterinsurgency strategy and stability operations are appropriate military doctrines for 21st century warfare, but they require engagement with those factions of the enemies forces who are willing to negotiate a settlement, thus Afghan President Hamid Karzai is also wise to conduct peace talks with members of the Taliban and to try to reach some kind of power sharing agreement with them. (for other short essays on this subject see: http://justpeacetheory.com/files/A_Response_to_President_Obamas_Speech_at_West_Point.pdf; http://justpeacetheory.com/files/We_Know_In_Part.pdf)
In the "Rolling Stone" report that created the controversy ending with General Stanley McChrystal's resignation, we see warriors frustrated with the kind of warfare they are being asked to wage in Afghanistan. Traditionally, wars and armies tear up stuff and kill people. Warriors are trained to bring extreme violence to bear on an enemy u ntil the enemy submits to the political goals of the politicians who have sent them to fight the war in the first instance.
General McChrystal and his crew are famous for tracking down the enemy in the dead of night and making sure they do not live to ever see another sunrise. Their sense of military rules of engagement means to fight until the bad guys surrender. Such is not the goal of counterinsurgency. In this conflict, there will be no Victory in Afghanistan Day. Michael Hastings, the author of the piece in "Rolling Stone" mentions at least three times that President Obama does not use the word "victory" when speaking of the war in Afghanistan. Hastings writes:
"So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word "victory" when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge."
Perhaps President Obama does not use the word "victory" because he, like just peace theorists, understands that there is no such thing as victory in war. The moment the first projectile flies, everyone loses. The question only becomes: how badly does each side lose. In fighting the Taliban, his armed forces are fighting non state actors who gain their support from the people either because they agree with their ideology or more likely because they fear them.
Counterinsurgency seeks to make the enemy irrelevant by providing security and building up a social structure that makes their ideology nonsensical. Further, the history of Afghanistan makes it utter folly to talk of victory. The country is known as the graveyard of empires for a reason.
Flash history. Afghanistan has been called the hub of civilizations. It is the center that has connected Russia with the warm water ports of The Arabian Sea leading to the Indian Ocean. It connected Europe and central Asia with the Indian sub continent and China and the Far East. Traders traveled through its territory and the famous Khyber Pass exchanging goods, ideas and religion between east and west. The land has been won and lost by some of the world's most famous and infamous warriors and warrior cultures -- Alexander the Great, Persians, Babylonians, Mauryans, Sythians, Huns, Mongols, British, Soviets and Americans.
According to Stephen Tanner in his book "Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban", the country is easy to take, but hard to hold because of terrain, tribe and time. It is easy for conquerors to take the urban areas along the trade routes, but the villages and towns in the mountains and the valleys are unconquerable because of the rugged terrain. The tribes will hide their own so that it is easy for warriors thought defeated to rest and to recover for a new round of fighting. They know that time is on their side. The tribes will unite to expel an invader, but after the outside force is defeated they often turn on one another and civil war ensues.
Modern Afghanistan came into existence in 1919 following the third Afghan war with the British. It maintained its eastern border marked by the Durand Line, a border agreed upon in 1893 between the British government in India and the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan. The line is named for Henry Mortimer Durand, foreign secretary of British India at the time. The problem with the Durand Line then and now is that it runs through territory occupied by the Pashtuns. They have never honored the border. Today, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan runs through this Pashtun territory. Most Taliban are Pashtuns.
The Taliban, a group of students trained in a very conservative brand of Islam, established order and security for the population after the mujahedeen expelled the Soviet Union from Afghanistan with the help of the United States. Charlie Wilson's war. The USSR invaded Afghanistan in late 1979 to keep a Communist government in place. The government had instituted many unpopular reforms; among them were expanded rights for women. Both the USSR and the United States had been involved in Afghanistan since the 1950s, the USSR with development in the north, the US with development in the south. It was during this period that the Soviets first discovered the possibility of mineral resources in Afghanistan, resources that has the possibility to make this poor country into a wealthy one. Natural gas was and remains a vital resource that could provide energy to Afghanistan's neighbors, including Russia and to the Indian sub continent.
After the Islamic revolution in Iran, Afghanistan took on more strategic significance for the United States as a place from which to monitor Soviet activity. After the Soviet's left Afghanistan and the Taliban took over the government, it allowed al-Qaeda to make a home there. Then came 9/11 and America's war with the Taliban. As other conquerors have found, the land was easy to take. We reveled in an easy "victory" and turned our attention to Iraq. But, it is hard to hold. The Taliban came back, and now we are fighting the longest war in American history.
It would be a mistake to pack our bags and leave abruptly. We would commit the same error we made at the end of Charlie Wilson's war. We would leave a power vacuum that the Taliban would fill. Thus, the necessity to work with the Afghan government to establish a stable government that can meet the security needs of its people. This will necessarily mean some accommodation with the Taliban.
Afghanistan is a country with enormous potential. Its history tells not only of war, but of great intellectual development around the city of Herat. Poetry, philosophy, and theology found expression there. Today, most of Afghanistan's people are illiterate. They lack food, clean water and proper sanitation. It is our moral obligation to help them to develop these things so they can have the capacity to develop their other human and natural resources. However, it is not our obligation alone. It is a global moral obligation. Let us compete as in a race toward this virtue.
Valerie Elverton Dixon
July 5, 2010; 5:14 PM ET
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