Sunday, July 19, 2009

Friedman and Afghanistan

Tom Friedman’s latest column in the New York Times begins:
I confess, I find it hard to come to Afghanistan and not ask: Why are we here? Who cares about the Taliban? Al Qaeda is gone. And if its leaders come back, well, that’s why God created cruise missiles.
And then Friedman writes, “But every time I start writing that column, something stills my hand.”

What stills Friedman’s hand? Does he recognize the folly of ignoring the Taliban? Does he realize that on-going instability in Afghanistan stokes instability in Pakistan? Does he describe the peril inherent in proliferating failed states? Does he recall America’s experience with the limitations of cruise missiles?

No. What stills Friedman’s hand is the opening of a new girls’ school in a remote Afghan village. Doubtlessly, such schools are valuable – both from a humanitarian perspective and from a strategic perspective, which Friedman identifies. But, that Friedman could begin today’s column as he does, requires either a willful disregard of history or a rather complete failing of critical thought.


Colin said...

I have to say that I am increasingly wondering what we are doing in Afghanistan as well. I realize that the most popular argument is that we have to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state to prevent a redux of al Qaeda setting up shop there. But AQ didn't move into Afghanistan when it was a failed state -- it only went there after the Taliban had basically won the civil war and ended the anarchy. Same story in Sudan where Osama bin Laden enjoyed the protection of a local government.

Ben said...

I've never been amenable to the argument that if we fail in Afghanistan it will automatically mean we face another 9/11. But, to say Afghanistan was not a 'failed state' after the Taliban came to power, I think is inaccurate. The Taliban ended chaos in (at its best point) 90% of the country, but its control was tenuous. I think it's fair to say that AQ and UBL had set up a fiefdom in Afghanistan and its operation there was markedly different than it had been in Sudan. Nor would I say that a failed state necessarily forecloses AQ operations - for instance, Somalia during the 1990s and maybe today.

So, for me, there are two concerns I have about abandoning Afghanistan. The first is the interaction between what is happening in Afghanistan and what is happening in Pakistan. The second is that I don't think AQ needs a friendly or even a stable state in which to operate but rather just a little space. Beyond that, though, Afghanistan is a tough nut that appears increasingly dismal. I understand and share that frustration.