Friday, January 28, 2005

Lessons of Afghanistan

On the topic of the Iraqi elections, Jeremy Brown, guest-blogging at Michael Totten's, wrote an insightful article a couple of days ago: The Unwinnable War

Let me bring you back a few years to a time when a great many people -- many of them very reasonable and reasonably intelligent (I was very briefly one of them way back then) -- predicted that a war in Afghanistan, whether justified or not, would result in a quagmire that would rival Viet Nam or, more to the point, Russia's Afghan war.

I remember very well. The certain pronouncements of the inconquerability of Afghanistan. How ineffective our bombing would be. The deviousness of the local warlords. The Afghan hostility to foreign intervention would cancel out any ill feelings about the Taliban. The disaster the brutal Afghan winter was sure to bring for U. S. troops.

And then, after a few weeks, the whole place fell like a house of cards. Within a year, women who had been among the most oppressed anywhere in the world were attending schools and casting ballots. The Taliban didn't just retreat, they disintigrated.

As awful as any war inherently is, why didn't the Afghan war of 2001 go the route of Russia's atrocious war in that country?

I think the answer is clear: all those warnings about the impossibility of successfully invading and conquering Afghanistan presupposed an invading army attempting to defeat the will of the entire Afghan people. But the U.S. goal of toppling the Taliban regime, it should be perfectly obvious, was entirely in concert with the will of the majority of Afghans.

An important question to ask about the war in Iraq, then, is: which side, if any, is struggling to achieve an end that reflects the will of the majority of Iraqi people. Anyone who denies, however much many Iraqis may dislike being occupied by Coalition troops, that the majority of people in Iraq want democratization to succeed and the 'insurgency' to fail, is just not paying attention.
This is where Europeans drawing from their colonial experience (and U. S. leftists drawing from their Vietnam-era nostalgia) miss the big picture. Yes, there are terrorists and Baathists and other terrible forces opposing the creation of a democratic Iraq. But they do not come close to approaching a popular movement. Plenty of Iraqis want U. S. troops out - but almost none want them out before Iraq's democracy is established and stabilized.

But we need to be realistic. Iraq became a country when post World War One British officials drew lines on a map. The Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites seem to share a desire not to split their nation. But the kind of unified Iraq that would please all of them is far from certain. After these elections comes the herculean task of crafting their new national constitution, which is scheduled to be completed in August. Then that constitution goes before the people for ratification.

These elections are just one more step in a long process in which Iraq reinvents itself as a democratic nation. But, as in Afghanistan, pessimism and wisdom are not necessarily soul-mates.


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