Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why America Must Stay the Course in Afghanistan

Think Higher Feel Deeper

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel recently made a compelling presentation at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York, just south of Buffalo. During his day long presentation series Professor Wiesel spoke about morality and how it relates to personal experience, respect for the other, individual responsibility, the dilemma of indifference, all as ethical tests confronting the world and in particular challenging today’s youth. Asked to sum up his day long visit and offer a synopsis of his presentation to the hundreds of students and youth in attendance Dr. Wiesel said, “Whatever you do in life, think higher and feel deeper.”


As a point of prior disclosure and in explanation for the passion and conviction that I bring to this topic; I lived in Afghanistan from 1972 to 1975. Most of my time in country was spent in Samangan Province where I served as Science Adviser for the provincial school system courtesy of the US Peace Corps. I am a current officer of the Friends of Afghanistan the official National Peace Corps Association affiliate organization for Peace Corps Volunteers who served in this South Central Asian nation from the 1960s up to a few months prior to the Soviet invasion on Christmas Eve 1979. I also advise a coalition of student organizations which continue to support gender equity educational projects in Kabul and in the outlying provinces.

The Third Goal

The Third Goal of Peace Corps obligates volunteers, upon returning to the United States, to help Americans understand the people and cultures of our host countries. I am offering this timely reflection on the culture and people of my host nation Afghanistan, to fulfill my Third Goal obligations and give my fellow Americans a sense of the humanity and sacrifice that the Afghan people have made for more than a generation as they strive to retain their cultural uniqueness while struggling to integrate into the modern world. For me, both as an individual and as a representative of the Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, Dr Wiesel’s statement resonated with the sounds, sights and experiences of our collective time spent living and working with the long suffering, poorly understood and paradoxically almost forgotten people of this ancient land; and it offered me a challenge to “think higher and feel deeper.” about my Peace Corps host country as a moral imperative during this time of high profile and great nationwide need.

Hidden in Paradox

From my personal perspective, his most poignant and challenging comment carried through time and space from Europe in the nineteen thirties and forties to an audience in Chautauqua, NY in 2009 was, “All war is immoral; but intervention can be a moral obligation.” As has so often been the case with formative issues throughout history, the highest truths are frequently hidden within a paradox. In the spirit of paradox the request that I make to my fellow Americans is that we consider Afghanistan with the deep mind and understand that there are always consequences both for actions that we take and for issues that we fail to address. Cause and effect consequences for acts of commission are generally obvious, objective and measurable. What is not always clear is that there are also consequences of omission. My contention is that in the present day we are experiencing the ripple effect for acts of policy omission that our government failed to make in Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union. For Americans the central debate on Afghanistan should focus on whether our intervention there is a moral necessity and what the consequences of omission would be if we were to depart imprudently.

Ironic Testimonial

I am no fan of the prior US administration’s under resourced, undermanned, mismanaged, poorly prosecuted no bid, cost plus, for profit Western engagement in Afghanistan. In fact, one could argue, from the start, that the invasion of Afghanistan was not regarded as the top priority for American foreign policy even in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World trade Center and the Pentagon. Afghanistan may have simply served as a convenient segue for the ideologically driven Neo-Conservative rush to judgment that brought us into Iraq with what is generally regarded in hind sight as too few troops, poor intelligence regarding the nature of the Iraqi resistance and with no viable exit strategy available in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

Having returned to Afghanistan in 2003 and in 2006 to implement and explore opportunities for student sponsored humanitarian aid and school construction projects, I can report, in hopefully balanced fairness that on a number of levels progress has been made. Infrastructure repair has been addressed and the construction of both private and public projects has gone forward especially in Kabul where most charitable organizations are headquartered. I am also pleased to report that the most conspicuous progress has been made in education where, through International aid groups, student to student support through NGOs and a tenacious commitment from local Afghan communities, boys and girls have returned to school in unprecedented numbers and in many areas this is in defiance of Taliban edicts.

Despite these documentable steps forward there has been and continues to be a growing sense of frustration among most Afghan citizens. Disillusionment with the pervasive corruption in the middle of an undesirable occupation by foreign armies reinforces the Afghan peoples’ long held cultural suspicion of Western policies, ideologies and ambitions. The public cynicism of the deteriorating security situation throughout Afghanistan, fueled by the rising Taliban insurgency, frustration and disappointment with the US Military, the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan Government’s inability to create real security, end corruption and help promote the general welfare for the average citizen, is especially aggravated by the failure of the massive amount of Western investment to trickle down through the glass ceiling of widespread fraud to reach the people in any substantive way. These concerns perceived collectively have fostered an opportunity for other ideologies like the Taliban, the Mujahedin and Warlord groups, to appear to be reasonable alternatives to the current state of affairs even if their periods of authority are still remembered in the context of extremism, violence and oppression.

Serious Work

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has accused the Obama administration of dilatory behavior regarding its Afghanistan policy that he characterized as dithering, even as the President is currently reviewing suggestions from his military advisers and assessing the reliability of our Afghan governmental partners after their recent fraud plagued election. Cheney has been joined in his disapproval by a tenuous alliance with critics of the administration on the left who are also calling for a hasty judgment on Afghanistan. Since the Obama Administration is developing policy changes that will ultimately result in the successful conclusion of our active military commitment in South Asia, every truly patriotic American citizen dedicated to a positive outcome for our mission in Afghanistan should be supportive of the current Administration’s thoughtful and reflective deliberation on this exceptionally serious undertaking. Unlike the Cheney promoted rush to judgment that, without a well thought out exit strategy, hurried us into both of the conflicts that President Obama’s team is currently working to resolve, America may now have a real opportunity to form a well planned strategy for disengagement that leaves behind stable and viable states after years and decades of war.

Caution Advised

Critics should use caution to ensure that publicly stated disapproval of the efforts of the democratically elected representatives of the American people does no harm to our national interests as our legitimately selected officials face the difficult undertaking of resolving issues of war and peace. Careless political posturing in the guise of free speech is at best in poor taste and at worst can embolden our foes during a time of international hostilities. If Mr. Cheney were to carefully review the content of his own presentations while in office he would find that this is a very reasonable request.

Talibs & Vacuums

Most Americans don’t realize that the Taliban movement was constructed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by the ISI, the Pakistani Secret Police, through funding support by Saudi Arabia and our own CIA. The Taliban was designed, developed and trained in Pakistani camps and Madrasas to be an opposition force to counter the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Today, it would quickly, and some say quite easily, move into the power vacuum that would be created if America and the West precipitously abandoned Afghanistan like it did in the late nineteen eighties.

Regrettably, after the defeat of the Russian Army, policy advisers in Washington decided that the cost benefit analysis for continuing to support Afghanistan would not yield an appropriate return for the investment of American and Western effort. Our political leaders following advice from economic, political, military and other international and regional experts decided that the risk-reward ratio needed to protect the people of Afghanistan did not judiciously warrant the continued allocation of assets from the contributing coalition of stake holders: the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia directly and other Western nations indirectly. The die of departure had been cast; and the stage was now set for the next phase in the history of South Central Asia and the world.

Price of Abandonment

We ultimately abandoned Afghanistan, dramatically reducing the massive foreign aid that was being sent to the “Freedom Fighter” groups through Pakistan during virtually the entire nineteen eighties. These flawed decisions of disengagement were made in the heady days following our Cold War victory over Soviet Communism which promised a halcyon period of peace and prosperity for the West. Success in our Cold War effort, which was ironically obtained through the catalytic sacrifice of the Afghan people, clearly shows that great powers can be formative agents of international change but even from a position of immense influence expected outcomes, can never be determined with complete assurance.

As a result, we have been drawn through recent history in a series of cause and effect events, via the ensuing fall of the Soviet Empire, the rise of international terrorist organizations like Al’ Qaida by way of September 11, 2001, directly to decisions that we are destined to make today in our time. An unchecked and empowered Taliban presence in the region, acting as an independent force, separated from the control of its ISI creators, may well result in a nightmare scenario for the US and South Central Asia, to which we are now inextricably linked.

What to Expect

The following is what one could realistically predict to see happen in Afghanistan and in the region if American and Western troops were precipitously withdrawn without a well planned exit strategy:

  • Governmental violence toward women would increase. Afghan Women would, once again, suffer gender discrimination on a scale that we can hardly grasp in the West. Educational and occupational opportunities for women would be severely restricted. And something as simple as walking unescorted in public would result in public beatings by the "Morality Police."
  • The Hazara minority, both women and men, would suffer ethnic cleansing and renewed pogroms in the Hazarajat highlands of central Afghanistan their ancestral homelands. The size and scope of previous pogroms against the Hazara people fit the description of genocide.
  • Shiites, Sufis and other minorities would suffer discrimination, oppression and even be subject to a Fatwa of death because their beliefs could be considered heretical by the Taliban courts.
  • Centuries old treasures would be destroyed as anti-Islamic idols as was done with cultural relics in the Kabul Museum and with the Giant Buddhas of Bamyian Province.
  • Afghanistan would again be plunged into Civil War with the threat of regional spillover into Pakistan and other South Asian nations most notably the Uzbek, Tajik and Turkoman nations of the former Soviet Union at greatest risk.
  • A legitimate threat from Taliban paramilitary forces in Afghanistan aided by the remnant of the Al’ Qaida network, would threaten the Pakistani Government and the security of its nuclear arsenal, resulting in the very real threat of a non-national terrorist group acquiring nuclear weapons.

The list above is what one could reasonably predict under Taliban rule. It is a simple restatement of what the Taliban did while in power coupled with an assessment of their current aspirations in Pakistan. One could judiciously predict that the best indicator of Taliban intention in a new position of power would be their past behavior while they were in control of the Afghan Government. While I fully support the controlled and orderly withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq that is currently underway, and in due course, the development of a reasonable exit strategy for Afghanistan, linking both policies in exit would be as foolish as joining them was at the start. I want to reemphasize that it was a rush to judgment that fostered the current, less than optimal conditions, in both Theaters of War and caution should be the standard that we employ for any strategic disengagement.

Ethical Debt

The problems in Afghanistan are much more layered, nuanced and complex. But finding a solution to these problems is essential if we are serious about establishing an enduring era of peace and stability in South Asia with whatever global implication that implies. Solving these problems will require a new, bold and perhaps unconventional pledge by the West. We may have to commit to a generation of cost effective nation building to stabilize this region and ultimately address American interests by helping to build a safe and secure Afghanistan that in its stability poses no threat to its citizens, its neighbors or the world.

Americans may have forgotten that the people of Afghanistan fought the hot point for our Cold War victory over the Soviet Union. We should all soberly bear in mind that Afghan citizens accepted casualties in massive numbers in pursuit of this goal and when on February 15, 1989 Boris Gromov, the final departing Soviet officer walked across the Pul e Ayraton Bridge in Northern Afghanistan, the consequences of the final chapter of the Great Game, played out in the twentieth century, were ready to be fulfilled and the geopolitical dynamics had been set in place that would ultimately free the Captive Nations of Eastern Europe, bring down the Berlin Wall and as a result of the blood sacrifice of the people of Afghanistan, win the Cold War for America. Twelve years and one day after the invasion of Afghanistan the Soviet Union dissolved.

America owes the Afghan people a moral debt. Open for discussion and deliberation is how one accurately assesses the worth of this kind of ethical obligation. What can be said, with the certainty of historical hindsight, is that abandoning the people of Afghanistan to a hypocritical, harsh, repressive and extremist Taliban theocratic-political agenda that justifies its hatred and violent behavior toward women and minorities as well as toward Americans, behind a thin veneer of literalist religious rhetoric, improper interpretation of scripture and faux public piety, will never serve the interests of Afghanistan. Nor, if history offers any kind of instruction, would a Taliban victory in Afghanistan be in the best interests of the United States of America.

Anthony Agnello
President, Friends of Afghanistan
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers

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