HELLO, I MUST BE GOING: Like everyone else, I wanted to hear President Barack Obama explain how when you’re stuck in a hole, the best solution is to grab a bigger shovel and dig faster. I was genuinely sympathetic. After all, he didn’t start the war in Afghanistan. He just happened to come along and inherit it. The Prez was his usual stellar self: straight talk and hard facts mixed with all the usual stirring flourishes. How could you not like his riff that “right makes might”? Or his insistence that “the nation I’m most interested in building is our own”? I dug his tough talk about holding accountable the incompetent thugs and crooks in the Karzai regime allegedly now running Afghanistan. “We’re partners, not patrons,” the Big O declared. “The days of providing a blank check are over.” For the hawks, he promised to dispatch 30,000 more American troops to one of the coldest, driest, and most god-forsaken spots on the planet to kick some righteous ass. And for the doves, he committed to begin the process of withdrawal in no less than 18 months.
As speeches go, it had a nice beat and a good melody. Somehow, I just couldn’t dance to it. Nearly 1,000 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began eight years ago. How many more? And for what? To prop up a president who can’t rig an election without being obvious about it? By the end of next year, we’ll have spent $350 billion over there. That could have bought a whole lot of socialized health care and bailed out who knows how many bankrupt corporations.
In the context of Afghanistan-where the average life expectancy is 44 years and the average adult makes less than $1,000 a year- it’s hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Yes, Karzai’s a crook and his brother’s a dope dealer, but access to health care has increased dramatically under his watch, child mortality dropped substantially, and little girls can go to school without fearing for their lives. Conversely, we all know the Taliban aren’t happy unless they’re beating their women into the Stone Age. But after 30 years of nonstop civil war, the Taliban emerged as one of the few competent, honest operations to be found. Ruthless about keeping women illiterate, the Taliban also fought against the wholesale rape and sexual abuse to which Afghani women had long been subjected. You figure. In one breath, Obama says the Taliban must be obliterated. In the next, he says members of the good Taliban must be allowed to participate in the Afghani government. In the context of Afghanistan, this makes sense. But it will take a lot longer than 18 months.
Alexander the Great conquered all of Persia in just six months. By contrast, it took him nearly four years to prevail in Afghanistan. With the new surge, there will be 100,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan. That’s only slightly less than the 120,000 troops the Soviet Union deployed during the height of its suicidal 10-year occupation. The Soviets tried all the nice-guy moves first, building roads, dams, highways, schools, and hospitals. It didn’t work. For their efforts, they were shot at by Afghani freedom fighters-bankrolled, armed, equipped, and incubated by the United States-who would later morph into the Taliban. Unlike the United States, the Soviets didn’t worry about civilian casualties: In 10 years, they killed one million. Throughout time, the empire formerly known would send 600,000 Soviets soldiers to Afghanistan. They got their asses kicked. Two years after the Soviets left, their empire crashed.
The real reason for the latest “surge” probably has less to do with Afghanistan-from which all but a couple hundred members of Al Qaeda reportedly have fled-than Pakistan, which shares a long, porous border with Afghanistan. Pakistan, as everyone knows, has The Bomb. And the Pakistani regime, fragile already, now has its hands full with an increasingly scary Taliban insurgency of its own. The problem is, at least according to UCSB’s Mark Juergensmeyer, an augmented American military presence will make matters worse, not better. He said a recent poll indicated that 47 percent of Pakistanis surveyed listed the United States as their greatest threat. By contrast, only 15 percent cited India, Pakistan’s longstanding nemesis. Only 7 percent listed the Taliban. And Pakistan, he cautioned, is hardly a nation of frothing Islamic extremists; voters there would have elected Benazir Bhutto-a woman-top dog had she not been assassinated in December 2007. Juergensmeyer speaks hopefully of creating an international coalition of Islamic nations to impose some semblance of order.
Until that happens, my suggestion is to go with the flow. If Afghanistan has a long cultural tradition of kickbacks, bribes, and other forms of wheel-greasing, I say embrace it. If the L.A. Times is to be believed, an entry-level Taliban warrior in Afghanistan gets paid $1,700 a year. By contrast, the United States is spending $1 million a year on every soldier it deploys there. You do the math. For the price we spend for one of our troops, we conceivably could pay the prevailing wages for nearly 600 Talibanistas. And if we doubled their wages, I’m guessing we could persuade a decent chunk of the estimated 20,000 Taliban warriors in Afghanistan to put down their guns, go home, and smell the poppies. No doubt there are important issues of cultural sensitivity to consider. And maybe it’s a really stupid idea. But other than American lives and a few hundred billion bucks, what do we have to lose by trying?