Afghanistan: What Could Work

Magnum Photos
An Afghan woman at a Shiite cemetery in Kabul, 2001; photograph by Abbas from In Whose Name? The Islamic World After 9/11, a collection of his recent images from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and other countries, just published by Thames and Hudson

Cool poker-players, we are tempted to believe, only raise or fold: they only increase their bet or leave the game. Calling, making the minimum bet to stay, suggests that you can’t calculate the odds or face losing the pot, and that the other players are intimidating you. Calling is for children. Real men and women don’t want to call in Afghanistan: they want to dramatically increase troops and expenditure, defeat the Taliban, and leave. Or they just want to leave. Both sides—the disciples of the surge and the apostles of withdrawal—therefore found some satisfaction in one passage in President Obama’s speech at West Point on December 1:

I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

But the rest left them uneasy. This was not, as they might have imagined, because he was lurching between two contradictory doctrines of increase and withdrawal, but because the rest of his speech argued for a radically different strategy—a call strategy—which is about neither surge nor exit but about a much-reduced and longer-term presence in the country. The President did not make this explicit. But this will almost certainly be the long-term strategy of the US and its allies. And he has with remarkable courage and scrupulousness articulated the premises that lead to this conclusion. First, however, it is necessary to summarize the history of our involvement and the conventional policies that have long favored surge and exit.

A legion of arguments almost drove Obama away from this new moderate position over the last ten weeks of discussion. There was our general fear in Afghanistan and Pakistan of the modern demons, which policy experts dub “insurgency, terrorism, civil war, human rights–abusing warlords, narcotics, weapons of mass destruction, and global jihad” and the spawn of “safe havens, rogue, fragile, and failed states.” There was our developing sense, over the last eight years, that the status quo was unacceptable.

From 2001, sections of the international community attempted to assist the Afghan government in the construction of a state. The British Department for International Development put 80 percent of its funds into direct budgetary support for the Afghan government and NGOs implemented health, education, and rural development projects as contractors for the Afghan government. Such efforts were described by NATO as a “comprehensive approach to security, governance and economic development” in which the UN, an apparently benevolent Karzai government, NATO, and the NGOs would all play their part—largely in concert because there was no perceived conflict between their…

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