Never fight a land war in Asia, the man said. Well, sure. How about a vertical insertion?
Right now, the United States has a new decision on Afghanistan, not an old one, and yet we seem to be confined to speaking only in metaphors and language from the past. I am going to break with every single practice I have ever had, as a writer, and speak directly about a foreign policy matter. I will explain why I, and why I believe we as humanist and pluralist nations of the West, have to engage with the problem of Afghanistan. I am aided in this by the fact that the people who propose pulling out of Afghanistan are actually arguing for staying in place, but I am hindered by the irresistable poisoned honey of historical analogy.
First, let us deal with the one analogy that everyone will invoke sooner or later: Vietnam. Afghanistan resembles Vietnam in its political regime. Karzai, in the analogy, is either President Diem or, much more fittingly, Durong Van Minh, the corrupt leader who allegedly made deals with the Vietcong. Afghanistan is also supposed to resemble Vietnam in that the insurgency is “out there” with aid from another country and employing terror to paralyze and then capture the food/drugs of the nation. Supposedly, the U.S. military, which was supposed to have flubbed Iraq because all they did was learn lessons from Vietnam, is now incapable of dealing with Afghanistan, because it is just like Vietnam. Finally, Afghanistan is like Vietnam in that once we begin sending troops, we will be bled constantly by a defensive posture (either because we won't “get tough,” if you're a neocon, or because our brutality radicalizes the population, if you're a realist or suffer from sanity).
The problem with the analogy is that the President is right: it requires a faulty reading of history. Afghanistan is not in the same situation at all, and the Taliban is not offering communism. It is offering efficiency at the cost of freedom, fairness, and personal identity in a land where personal autonomy is vital. The defensive posture is always a problem, because it's always easier to inflict damage on a defender and run away than it is to obliterate a mobile force. This is why it was easy for the U.S. forces to take Afghanistan in the first place. Attacking someone who is trying to defend is easier, these days, than defending against someone who can come from any direction, including up or down. The problem of the Afghanistan government is critical, absolutely critical, because it means that the Afghani villager gets to choose between vicious efficiency or kleptocracy and insecurity. People may face dangers, but not for shabby treatment. Even with that granted, though, Karzai is neither Diem (the man who tortured his own people in his anti-communist crusade) nor Minh. He infuriates his people by acting like a tribal man, an ethnic man, and a war lord's friend, but not by being a tyrant. (Malaki in Iraq, incidentally, bears scrutiny that no one in the U.S. is giving. We so want that to be over that we have ignored another Very Bad Situation in the making.)
All of the mottos about Bactria the inviolate and inconquerable (Alexander the Great), where Napoleon and the British could not win, where the Soviets could not prevail, are beside the point. First, the U.S. demonstrated that its military could take and destroy the military and political leadership and civil institutions of the area. In fact, NATO troops could easily defeat any military Afghanistan ever were to develop. It's not even a battle.
Can any foreign power govern Afghanistan, though? That's the question our cliches haven't addressed. That's the question that gets to the heart of the case. Afghanistan had a centralized government in the 1970's. Although this was a brief period, it did exist. Prior to that and since then, tribes and ethnicities have opposed one another, and groups that migrated in or practiced religious variations six thousand years ago refuse to treat one another as fellow citizens. Karzai wants to help “his people” who speak his language and belong to his tribe, and other groups want theirs. He lets murderous creatures disgrace him and destroy governance because they are of his tribe. This is an educated individual choosing to adopt an atavistic model for social organization, a model that has within it an eternal animosity toward central government. It has deponent governments -- little centralized decision bodies -- based on the tribe and family, and it bears some resemblance to the satrap, but with no personal, blood, ethnic, or religious commander above the unit. It is pre-nation-state.
So long as all of the “leaders” of Afghanistan are leaders of tribes and populations, rather than leaders of places, districts, and persons – so long as geography and isolation mean that it is a set of perpetually warring tribes – no nation may govern Afghanistan, and there is no Afghanistan to govern itself. The very name is an arbitrary distraction. If we know for certain that there is no hope, in fact, of any 1970's Afghanistan ever emerging from this generation, then we would be better off thinking of districts and populations and fighting, organizing, building, and negotiating separately.
The Taliban introduces theocracy, but theocracy is vague. There is no magic in that. If you believe that there is something so mysterious about “theocracy” that we can only deal with it in the discourse that it sets for itself (holy war), then you need to look at your own history. All of Europe had experiments with theocracy, and the United States has had multiple adventures in theocracy (aside from Bob Jones University). From the Massachussetts Bay Colony to the Shakers, the U.S. has had its theocracies, and it is easy enough to study how they interact with stresses from outside. In general, they thrive most when they have an enemy. The best way to fuel a theocracy is to put on a Great Satan costume, for then you seem to justify the founding assumptions. Avoiding offense is impossible (see the rewards President Obama has received from trying to avoid offending Christian Fundamentalists in the United States: they call him the anti-Christ and see in his politeness proof that he is trying to fool them), and so the best way to win is to simply not play. Refuse to speak of winning and losing, of conquest and triumph. Do not speak of yourself at all. Speak of the population you are there for.
As for whether or not we must be there, when “it is impossible to win,” we must be there because it is impossible to win. Every person who makes the case that no army can prevail in Afghanistan reinforces the argument that our armies must prevail in Afghanistan.
I opposed the Iraq war. I was and remain ambivalent about the Afghanistan war. However, a nation-sized hole in the earth where the world says “No army can prevail” is very bad. There must be no such place. Somalia, the grand shamble of “failed states,” is very similar to Afghanistan in its tribalism, in the way that each group fights for its group identity and has no concept of a nation at all, but Somalia is, obviously, no place that world opinion regards as impenetrable. World opinion holds that Somalia could be “taken” in weeks but that it has no value to the world.
Afghanistan is important because we have said, for thousands of years now, that anyone who goes in there is safe from the nation states of the world. If you can get permission from the tribe (not the nation), you can do anything you want in Afghanistan, from grow opium to plan attacks on world trade. In the past, the stakes were not very high, because the thing that made one “safe” made the world “safe” from you, too: geography meant isolation in both senses. Now, though, one individuals can go in, embed, train, and, because of global transportation and trade links with Pakistan, India, and Iran, and because of proxy fights, fly away easily to fight elsewhere on a one-way ticket. Thus, if we say that Afghanistan is a place where one can be invulnerable, then the world's populations are all in danger, regardless of the threat. If al Qaeda were to disappear tomorrow and Osama bin Laden were to recant and repent, then the danger would be the same. The world's nations must not allow there to be a place that will refuse to organize and yet still benefit from global access and travel. That makes for a case of offense being far more powerful than defense.