Afghanistan: What Would Winning Look Like?

Armed Liberal over at the Winds of Change talked to Craig Mullaney, who’s about to become the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Central Asia, including, of course, Afghanistan. The all-important question of what winning there would look like came up, and to paraphrase, it would mean not allowing Al Qaeda to use the country as a base of operations for extra-territorial attacks. We’ve done that, he points out, but only at the expense of basically pushing the bad guys over to Pakistan, which is now at the brink.

I’m mostly agree with that, but with the caveat that the democratic, liberal world needs to assist the country in transforming into something sustainable. That was always supposed to be the goal in Iraq, too (or at least one of them). Help create a more-or-less liberal, democratic country has enough of that culture and infrastructure to maintain over the years and eventually develop into a tradition, like the United States has. Not a mirror image, certainly, but along the same general ideas of a pro-market, pro-freedom system of government the devolves it’s power ultimately to the people.

Why? We don’t really have a choice, in the long run. If these kinds of governments and systems of rule are allowed to continue as technology marches on, bad, bad things will happen down the road. It’s inevitable. If you have countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or the Taliban’s Afghanistan with access to toys that make nukes look like child’s play in 50 years, well, yeah, enough said. It’s not really a question of if these systems and countries need to be transformed, but how does the democratic, liberal world go about encouraging it? What will work? Change by the point of a gun, as in Iraq and Afghanistan? Change by the point of diplomats and trade negotiators, as in China? Or just close your eyes and hope for the best, like large swaths of Africa? THAT’S the discussion we need to be having.

Thinking about just keeping Al Qaeda down and out in Afghanistan is thinking way, way too small. If President Obama really thinks that his predecessor was on the wrong track, then fine; just don’t whistle past the graveyard and think that these countries aren’t a huge danger. Thomas Barnett’s “gap countries” and their chaos, violence, and corruption inevitably will boil forth into what he calls the functioning core if not beaten back. In the long run, containment is bound to fail.

Unfortunately, I think that a real consensus throughout the democratic, liberal world that these systems of government cannot be allowed to exist any longer will not come until they have no choice and it’s the last possible minute to make changes. Sacrifice is usually only made throughout a society if the alternative is worse. I think that we still believe that doing (almost) nothing will result in (almost) no harm coming to us. This isn’t the 18th century, though, where a country could decide how involved with the rest of the world it wanted to be. If you try to tune it out, they’ll just get louder.

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