Monday, January 12, 2009

"Humanitarian" war and Afghanistan


Taylor Marsh at the Huffington Post Progressive Bankruptcy on Afghanistan 01/10/09 scolds "progressives", Steve Clemons and Rachel Maddow in particular, for their supposed insufficient concern for what would happen in Afghanistan if the US and NATO pulled out.

If we keep fighting a war until women in Afghanistan have the level of recognized and practical rights that women have in, say, Australia or Spain, or even the lower level in the US, we'll likely be fighting in Afghanistan for the lifetimes of most people now alive.

Yet after scolding "progressives" over this and suggesting that Obama needs to give more concern to Pakistan in that war, she also says, "I'm not in favor of escalating in Afghanistan like Iraq, mainly because Afghans have never had a central government, so it won't work."

This is frankly just silly. War supporters get very concerned about the rights of women in Muslim countries where they want to bomb and kill people. But without vastly escalating the number of troops, without having a "central government", and without committing ourselves to decades of war there, just how are we going to guarantee women's rights there?


This is a surprisingly disingenuous post from Marsh. For one thing, the purpose of the war that started in 2001 was never for the purpose of imposing more enlightened conditions for Afghan women, or even to fight the Taliban as such. It was to kill or capture as many of the cadres of Al Qa'ida, the terrorist group that attacked the US on 9/11/01, as possible. Rummy could certainly have done a more thorough job of that.

(An occupying power does have the legal responsibility to set up a representative government, though not one that would pass the European Union's minimum requirements for membership. Even the United States doesn't have one of those.)

But no matter how we define the mission, the same issues remain. Do we have the capability to achieve those goals at an acceptable cost? Is there a reasonable chance of success? Are the consequences of the war more damaging than beneficial? How are we going to come out of this with better results than the Soviet Union did? And the USSR, by the way, did try to impose more equal and modern conditions for women there, which was one of the main sources of hostility to them among the mujaheddin. That would be the brave Afghan freedom fighters that we armed and supported in the 1980s, though today we call them murdering Muslim terrorists.

Then there's the problem that in South Asia, Pakistan and India are chronically in tension over the disputed Kashmir province. The current Afghan government of Harmid Karzai is favored by India while Pakistan sees it as "pro-Indian", not entirely without reason. Whatever the cause for which we are fighting in Afghanistan, a continued war in Afghanistan that is expanding into Pakistan seriously complicates the effort Obama has said he wants to make to diffuse the Kashmir controversy. Which is a major issue in the Muslim world, and even more importantly has a major effect on nuclear nonproliferation efforts, Pakistan and India both being nuclear powers.

There's also the issue that protracted war in a Muslim country, especially one that scarcely has a functioning modern national state, is itself a problem, no matter what the goal is.

There's also the reality of mission creep that has occurred already. We went from going after Al Qa'ida, which the US assumed to require ousting the Taliban government, to fighting the "Taliban" resistance in Afghanistan, to increasing rocketing Pakistan and worrying about the "Taliban" insurgents there. I put "Taliban" in quotes here because from what Juan Cole says about the current situation, the groups that American officials and reporters code as "Taliban" are actually not all directly connected to the old Taliban government and movement. Many of them are Pushtun warlords and guerrilla groups. They are generally Islamist and generally opposed to Western and United Nations standards for women's rights. But to simply assume, like Taylor Marsh does in that post, that they will implement identical practices to the Taliban regime that we ousted in 2001, is largely speculation. And those practices were considered extreme even in the Muslim world.

The mission creep needs to stop. If we are going to continue the war, we need to set a clear goal and strategy and some kind of reasonable time line for an exit. And whether the goal is making sure that we've damaged Al Qa'ida as much as we feasibly can with such an approach - which is likely already the case - or to keep a pro-India government in power there, or to permanently secure some considerably higher level of rights for Afghan women, we need to be realistic about what it takes. In military and economic terms, in losses to Americans, other NATO countries and to Afghanistan, in the likelihood of creating an even more massive refugee crisis in Afghanistan. The last I recall seeing, Iraq and Afghanistan were the two biggest refugee crisis in the world, even more serious than Darfur, and even if that ranking doesn't hold, it's already very serious.

All these are problems that have to be addressed no matter what war aims.

Marsh, at least so far as that post indicates, seems to think it's just a matter of that famous American Will on which rightwing commentators put such great stock. She seems to think that the main problems is that "progressives [are] losing their moral courage" to continue the Afghanistan War. To take that posture and then to say that she doesn't support escalating like in Iraq but also wants to do some kind of vague more in Pakistan, that's really just silly.

And on the change of war aim itself. She does more-or-less advocate that, though hardly in the unambiguous terms her scorn for Clemons and Maddow on the issue would indicate:
Maybe progressives against action in Afghanistan should consider looking at a broader picture in Afghanistan, one that includes women's rights, but also the rights of young girls to go to school, and whether that is a long term strategic interest to the U.S., not some luxury for which we can't afford to fight.
We shouldn't be under any illusions about this. This would be a vast expansion of the American mission in Afghanistan, and one that would take much longer and probably be more difficult to achieve than the ones we're already failing to achieve - to the extent that anyone actually knows what the ones we're trying to achieve right now really are.

But just as the US has neither the right nor the actual power to be the sheriff of the whole world, neither do we have the right nor the power to be the armed humanitarians of the world.

And it's long past time for Americans to be regularly asking questions about wars, such as, is there any right in international law for the United States or NATO to decide that we will carry on a counterinsurgency war for years or decades in order to protect women's rights as such? Or to carry on even a fast war? Not that I'm aware. Even the case for unilateral intervention (i.e., without UN sanction) in instances of actual genocide is highly questionable, for better or worse.

Failing to recognize the limits of our own power has been a key failing of the United States in the last eight years, and not for the first time in history. But the strategic consequences of such lack of recognition has been more disastrous with the Iraq War than ever before, even in the Vietnam War. Those limits are there, even in good causes.

And we always fight for good causes, don't we?

War is sometimes a necessary evil, but it remains an evil. And it sets off consequences that are often far greater than anyone envisioned at the start.

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