Right though I so very often am, it always makes me feel distinctly queasy to find myself in the majority. A few weeks ago, I reported Rory Stewart’s increasing misgivings about the course being followed by NATO and the United States in Afghanistan. (Stewart has seemed to me both the shrewdest supporter as well as the smartest critic of the counter-Taliban effort—don’t miss what I quoted him as saying on both sides of the case.)
Now it seems that every columnist from George Will to Tom Friedman has decided that we are being played for suckers by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and drawn into a lethally baited trap by a Taliban that is increasingly able to pose as the voice of the Pashtun people. Some appalling disclosures from the recent Afghan elections seem to lend support to both of these dire conclusions.
On the other hand, if I had been writing a few months ago, I would have been—and, in fact, was—most worried by the apparent collapse of Pakistani government and society in the face of Pashtun/Taliban aggression on that side of the border. A fertile and prosperous and advanced valley in the Swat district, only miles from the capital city, had been ceded without a fight. A long nightfall appeared to be beginning, presaged by a torrent of refugees. Now, it is a trifle early to speak with any certainty, but four more recent things appear to have happened. First and most important, many local people have mobilized to protest, and to resist, the evident horrors of Taliban rule. Second, the Pakistani army seems, at least for now, to have recovered some of its nerve and to be contesting the terrain. Third, American drone strikes have pinpointed and killed at least one especially ghastly Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who, among other crimes, was the probable organizer of the murder of Benazir Bhutto. Fourth, there are believable reports of a squabble among the Pakistani Taliban about the succession to this gangster. None of this would have seemed very probable six months back.
The needle oscillates, and will continue to do so, but the four requisites are in place: citizens rejecting theocracy and its partner, organized crime; an indigenous army that fights for its own reasons; American airstrikes that are careful and discriminating; and the development of splits that can be exploited among the jihadists. A mixture not unlike this worked in Iraq, at least to the point where the conflict could be redefined. It is not yet inevitable that a comparable outcome is beyond reach in Afghanistan.
The question of whether we can or should protect potentially pluralist regimes, whatever their shortcomings, either directly or from “over the horizon” is not, as some critics condescendingly put it, a matter of “babysitting” or “adoption.” It is a question of how long-term we are prepared to think. And here are two long-term considerations: The first is the training and traction that will be required for a long war against Islamic terrorism, and the second is the inescapable question of Iran.
However much and however justifiably the press prefers to lay the emphasis on stories of “overstretch” or “post-traumatic stress disorder,” it remains the case that we have been schooling a superb generation of soldiers who have the irreplaceable advantage of having fought, and in many cases vanquished, the deadliest imaginable enemies in the most arduous possible terrain. This means that if, say, the government of the Philippines or Indonesia or India or any of the other Asian democracies should request assistance against the same foe, we would be able to supply them with a wealth of expertise as well as a fair bit of muscle. Whatever political decisions are made about our posture toward the rather sketchy Karzai or Maliki governments, the long-term abilities conferred by this bitterly won battle-hardening constitute an asset that is unquantifiable. And it isn’t merely combat experience, essential as that may be, but the learned ability to find ways of isolating, discrediting, and dividing the terrorists.
A presence in Iraq and Afghanistan also means that the recent coup by the Revolutionary Guards in the all-important country of Iran is a coup that already faces containment. Just across two of its main frontiers are some pretty formidable contingents that the dictatorship must always keep in mind. This consideration is likely to become ever more important as the crisis of the mullahs deepens. Until recently, they would have seen at least one clear way out of their cul-de-sac: another holy war with a rival or neighbor, most probably a Sunni Arab one. Among the extremists in Tehran, there have already been bellicose noises about Bahrain, for example: a monarchical Arab mini-state with a majority Shiite population that some claim to be rightfully Persian. Given the rapid progress that it has made toward nuclear capability, and the no-less-rapid way that it has alienated its own people, the temptation for the Ahmadinejad regime to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” and to appeal to tribal and religious emotions is already fairly great. Now, try to picture the foregoing equation with the U.S. military presence removed, let alone with it having admitted defeat.
On its own, of course, the Iranian menace would not justify keeping forces in two neighboring countries. Nor could the presence be justified by the opportunities for training that it provides. But we don’t have the right to forget why we are in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place: to make up for past crimes of both omission and commission and to help safeguard emergent systems of self-government that have the same deadly enemies as we do and to which, not quite incidentally, we gave our word.