Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Save the Lecture (on Afghanistan)

Editorial - Taking Stock in Afghanistan - NYTimes.com

The Times editors take a fairly moderate position here, but their moderation is overwhelmed by moralism mixed with paternalism. On the one hand they are willing to give the counterinsurgency some time. On the other hand they talk of managing Karzai as if he were some project we might figure out rather than the leader of a nation that has been at war for more than 30 years. They, like much the press, focus on the shinny bright object, Karzai, as if he were an independent actor, rather than a player--a significant player to be sure--in a complex and tensed system. Karzai reflects the system as much or more than he shapes it. We complain that he acts insecurely and paranoid, but surely these are signs of sanity in a radically insecure context.

Again, my point is not that relations with Karzai can't be better managed, but that the Times writes as if he were a neglected summer camp project. If it is so easy, why not suggest how that relationship should be better managed. A place to begin would be with a recognition that he is working in a society that has a strong bias for local rule and against outsiders. The insurgency exploits this bias intensely enough to mimic a civil war with all the usual accompanying bitterness and terror, think kidnapping and assassinations. Karzai himself is a survivor of at least one assassination attempt. In this context, consistency and respect would seem to be among the things most likely to instill the same on his part. The Times instead claims that we "need to make clear that there's a limit to American patience." In stating as much they are seemingly ignorant of recent reports indicating that our July 2011 deadline intensified Karzai worries and sense of isolation and insecurity.

The Times also sounds detached from reality in its demanding that Afghanistan become a liberal democracy. How can we expect a deeply conservative tribal society--at least outside Kabul--to fight and die for a foreign idea such as liberal democracy with all the rights we are accustomed? Even in our "free society" we make room for a variety of family patterns. Why should we insist on more in Afghanistan, especially when we lack the power to make it happen?

Lastly the Times criticizes Karzai for offering the Taliban the carrot of being removed from the United Nations terrorist blacklist--saying it is too early for such talk--when only a few sentences above the editors have lectured us about the lack of time. If we are going to start departing Afghanistan in a year, when do we expect reconciliation and pacification to begin?

After these almost silly statements, the editors conclude as you might expect, with more lecturing: "General McChrystal is going to have to do a much better job in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai is going to have to drop his illusions and commit to the fight." They make is sound so simple; just try harder. They do know this is a war, right?

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