September 23, 2004

Debunking Afghanistan Myths

I'm not some Rummy-on-Steroids type of guy who thinks we can walk, chew gum and, to boot, kick a little ass in NoKo and Iran too--before heading to the Taiwan Straits. Still, however, everyone should go read this Peter Bergen piece on Afghanistan in today's NYT--particularly given the constant carping from the Left that Bush has simply installed a Mayor of Kabul and that the rest of Afghanistan is going to hell--all because of his myopic obsession with Iraq (see Richard Clarke for the high-brow version of this meme--and Krugman, MoDo and Co. for the boiler-plate rehashing of it).

Money grafs:

As I toured other parts of the country, the image that I was prepared for - that of a nation wracked by competing warlords and in danger of degenerating into a Colombia-style narcostate - never materialized. Undeniably, the drug trade is a serious concern (it now compromises about a third of the country's gross domestic product) and the slow pace of disarming the warlords is worrisome.

Over the last three years, however, most of the important militia leaders, like Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Uzbek community in the country's north, have shed their battle fatigues for the business attire of the politicians they hope to become. It's also promising that some three million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Kabul, the capital, is now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, with spectacular traffic jams and booming construction sites. And urban centers around the country are experiencing similar growth.

While two out of three Afghans cited security as their most pressing concern in a poll taken this summer by the International Republican Institute, four out of five respondents also said things are better than they were two years ago. Despite dire predictions from many Westerners, the presidential election, scheduled for Oct. 9, now looks promising. Ten million Afghans have registered to vote, far more than were anticipated, and almost half of those who have signed up are women. Indeed, one of the 18 candidates for president is a woman. Even in Kandahar, more then 60 percent of the population has registered to vote, while 45 percent have registered in Uruzgan Province, the birthplace of Mullah Omar. With these kinds of numbers registering, it seems possible that turnout will be higher than the one-third of eligible voters who have participated in recent American presidential elections.

Bergen concludes:

What we are seeing in Afghanistan is far from perfect, but it's better than so-so. Disputes that would once have been settled with the barrel of a gun are now increasingly being dealt with politically. The remnants of the Taliban are doing what they can to disrupt the coming election, but their attacks, aimed at election officials, American forces and international aid workers, are sporadic and strategically ineffective.

If the elections are a success, it will send a powerful signal to neighboring countries like Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, none of which can claim to be representative democracies. If so, the democratic domino effect, which was one of the Bush administration's arguments for the Iraq war, may be more realistic in Central Asia than it has proved to be in the Middle East. [my emphasis throughout]

A few quick takes. Bergen says a democratic domino effect might be likelier in Central Asia than the Middle East. Maybe. But some cautionary notes are in order: 1) I'm skeptical of 'domino theories' generally (state-specific factors can often trump region-wide trends); 2) Putin's expedited post-Beslan re-centralization of power is (at least) as important (and likely much more so in the -stans) a harbinger of going forward political trends in Central Asia than whatever happens in Afghanistan; 3) the U.S. is helping to prop up an authoritarian regime in Pakistan (largely, in my view, necessarily given regional and security imperatives); and 4) Iran is a special case (a nationalist backlash in Iran--particularly if Israel or the U.S. engages in military strikes--is at least as likely as an anti-clerical counter-revolutionary re-awakening).

Note too, Bergen says that the "Bush Administration's argument for the Iraq war may be more realistic in Central Asia that it has proved to be in the Middle East." Again, maybe. But let's see what Iraq looks likes in a year (once we've been there about as long as we've been in Afghanistan). "Tenuous stability," after all, may be in the offing (per the NYT's summation of the recently disclosed Iraq NIE). Not Luxembourg, mind you, but still real potential progress. After all, isn't such prospective stability better than living under the yoke of genocidaire-neo-Stalinist thuggery (yes, admitedly, the grim disintegration/civil war scenario would be worse)?

A last note. Will Bergen's piece (Bergen, of course, is no Bush apologist) be honestly appraised (or even mentioned) by a quorum of commentators on the Left? Or will they continue to trot out the tired and convenient shibboleth that Bush bungled Afghanistan because of the Iraq adventure?

True, fair-minded left bloggers have, if perhaps reluctantly, given Bush a 4 out of 10 on Afghanistan in the past. But Bergen's analysis, particularly keeping in mind how the Soviets got bogged down there, would have me scoring it at a more generous 7 out of 10 (Bush mostly loses points on UBL in my book). After all, a 4 out of 10 is a failing grade. Does unseating the regime you aimed to unseat, at lightning speed, constitute a failure? Still, Kevin Drum's a pretty fair-minded guy. More so, it seems, than John Kerry:

In Afghanistan, we have some NATO involvement, but the training of the Afghan Army is insufficient to disarm the warlord militias or to bring the billion dollar drug trade under control. This Administration has all but turned away from Afghanistan.

Er, we haven't "all but turned away" from Afghanistan. That's simply not true. Jamie Rubin and Susan Rice are gonna have to come up with better stuff than this (such untrue and/or hyperbolic criticisms)--at least if they want to persuade people Kerry has serious foreign policy alternatives to bring to the table re: issues like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at September 23, 2004 09:59 AM
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