The Man Who Would Be Dictator?

According to the NY Times,:
A coded French diplomatic cable leaked to a French newspaper quotes the British ambassador in Afghanistan as predicting that the NATO-led military campaign against the Taliban will fail. That was not all. The best solution for the country, the ambassador said, would be installing an “acceptable dictator,” according to the newspaper.
The big story here, I would argue, is NOT the fact that Western leaders think that, given the choice, our interests would be better served by an Afghan version of Mubarak than by the return to power of Mullah Omar. If it's going to be autocracy, certainly we're better served by a friendly autocrat than one who opens his country to training camps for terrorists who want to kill us.

The big story---or rather, the lack of story---is the near-complete absence in American public debate of support for the view that we should be disengaging from Afghanistan. In the Presidential contest these days, Obama and McCain agree that it's important to increase the American military presence in Afghanistan. They argue about who should get credit for the point: Obama says that he's been calling for greater attention to Afghanistan for years and that the Iraq war dangerously diverted American military resources from Afghanistan (and western Pakistan); McCain says that the reduction in violence in Iraq, which he attributes entirely to the surge, is what makes it possible to re-deploy troops to Afghanistan, and that doing so would be another surge (a term on which he apparently has the copyright). Top American officers in the field also seem to think that a heavier military footprint is needed in Afghanistan.

I want to register some skepticism. The very reasons why people were skeptical about the ability of the U.S. and/or other Western powers to occupy Iraq apply with equal force to Afghanistan. Here is a Muslim country with ethnic and tribal divisions, and a very long history of resisting foreign occupation. (Don't believe me? Ask Rudyard Kipling, per the title of this post.)

Why the conspiracy of silence on this issue by nearly everyone but the hard left? I suspect there are two reasons. The first is the widely shared view (which I too share) that U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was justified in the first place, so that once we were there, we had no choice but to occupy. Here too a little skepticism may be warranted. "After ten days of U.S. bombardment, a senior Taliban leader, in secret Pakistani conferences, asked for a puase while moderate members of the Taliban tried to persuade their Supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to hand over bin Laden. But President Bush rejected every offer." (That's from p. 13 of After 9/11, which is, admittedly, a comic book, but it's an accurate comic book.) It's quite possible, of course, that the opening was a ruse, and that nothing would have come of it, but we'll never really know because Bush flatly rejected it. The point I'm making is simply that the initial decision to use military force against the Taliban was not itself a commitment to a decade-long or longer occupation of Afghanistan.

The second reason for the silence may be the apparent success of the surge. If it worked in Iraq, the thinking goes, it can work in Afghanistan, with its smaller population. Yet, as Bob Woodward has recently argued, the surge is only one factor, and probably not the most important one, in explaining the reduction in violence in Iraq. A new method of targeted killings gets the prize, according to Woodward. Since that method remains classified, we don't yet know whether it will, in the long run, produce stability or blowback.

Consider a variant on a point Obama made against McCain in their debate: McCain talks as though the Iraq war began in 2007. Yet the problem for everyone who assumes that more American troops in Afghanistan would be good for the U.S. (or the Afghan people) in the long run is obvious: History didn't begin with Iraq in 2007 or 2003. We have a great many more data points about the effect of military occupation of Muslim countries by non-Muslim powers, and they're not encouraging. Indeed, we don't even know whether the surge in Iraq will prove to be a long-term success. It's worth recalling that the Iraq Study Group (remember them?) said they considered but ruled out something like a surge because they thought that while it could contribute to a temporary reduction in violence, it would only postpone the day of reckoning. I hope that view is ultimately proven wrong in Iraq, but even if it is, that won't be proof that it's wrong everywhere.

Posted by Mike Dorf