Sunday, September 6, 2009

Send The Peace Corps, Not More Troops, To Afghanistan

I'm not gloating but two New York Times columnists agree with my assessment that U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is untenable although neither go as far as my desire to pull out all our troops.

Normally, opinions by New York Times columnists are not those that sway the powers in Washington. But in the case of Afghanistan the White House and Pentagon should be taking notes. One columnist is Thomas L. Friedman, arguably the most authoritative voice in the main stream media on Middle Eastern affairs. The other is Nicholas D. Kristof whom I'm not so sure about but at least he's talked to the folks there.

Writes Friedman:

It would be one thing if the people we were fighting with and for represented everything the Taliban did not: decency, respect for women’s rights and education, respect for the rule of law and democratic values and rejection of drug-dealing. But they do not. Too many in this Kabul government are just a different kind of bad. This has become a war between light black — (president Hamid) Karzai & Co. — and dark black — Taliban Inc. And light black is simply not good enough to ask Americans to pay for with blood or treasure.

Friedman argues after eight years we do not have a reliable partner to hand off to.

The strategy that our new — and impressive — commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is pursuing calls for additional troops to create something that does not now exist there — a reasonably noncorrupt Afghan state that will serve its people and partner with America in keeping Afghanistan free of drug lords, warlords, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His plan calls for clearing areas of Taliban control, holding those areas and then building effective local, district and provincial governments — along with a bigger army, real courts, police and public services. Because only with all that can we hold the support of the Afghan people and avoid a Taliban victory and a return of Al Qaeda that could threaten us. That is the theory.

What it amount to is a shift in policy from baby sitting a nation to adopting it, Friedman says.

"I feel a vast and rising ambivalence about this in the American public today, and adopting a baby you are ambivalent about is a prescription for disaster," he concludes.

Kristof is worried President Obama will increase troop levels in Afghanistan in which he cites military and CIA officials as a recipe for disaster. The group fears sending more American troops into ethnic Pashtun areas in the Afghan south may only galvanize local people to back the Taliban in repelling the infidels.

Many Pashtuns I’ve interviewed are appalled by the Taliban’s periodic brutality and think they are too extreme; they think they’re a little nuts. But these Pashtuns also admire the Taliban’s personal honesty and religious piety, a contrast to the corruption of so many officials around President Hamid Karzai.

Some Taliban are hard-core ideologues, but many join the fight because friends or elders suggest it, because they are avenging the deaths of relatives in previous fighting, because it’s a way to earn money, or because they want to expel the infidels from their land — particularly because the foreigners haven’t brought the roads, bridges and irrigation projects that had been anticipated.

The group Kristof cites includes Howard Hart, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Pakistan; David Miller, a former ambassador and National Security Council official; William J. Olson, a counterinsurgency scholar at the National Defense University; and another C.I.A. veteran who does not want his name published but who spent 12 years in the region, was station chief in Kabul at the time the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and later headed the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.

Kristof supports a nation building approach.

The solution is neither to pull out of Afghanistan nor to double down. Rather, we need to continue our presence with a lighter military footprint, limited to training the Afghan forces and helping them hold major cities, and ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regroup. We must also invest more in education and agriculture development, for that is a way over time to peel Pashtuns away from the Taliban.

What turned me sour on Afghanistan as a hopeless rebuilding entity is a 2007 report by the World Bank in which I posted columns in May and June. One of the bank's subsidiaries loaned the Karzai government $65 million to begin restoring its rural irrigation system. Success was marginal at best and was marred by corrupt and inept officials within the Interior Ministry.

In efforts to improve the country's agriculture development, why not send in trained experts in horticulture and irrigation engineering from members of our civilian Peace Corps. Afghanistan with its tribal customs will take years to bring into the 21st century. The end game is no where near in sight.

It's time for our soldiers to leave.

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