Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Doing What We Can

Some thoughts on Afghanistan.

When Obama was deliberating with his generals over the next course of action in Afghanistan, I felt considerably conflicted.  On the one hand, we were experiencing an economic crisis on the home front, and the prospect of spending hundreds of billions more on that war, not to mention the risk to soldier (and civilian) life, when a positive outcome - a somewhat stable and democratic government - seemed a tall order.  But on the other, leaving would seem to pave the way for a Taliban resurgence, bringing with it a horrible humanitarian crisis and the likely return of terrorist "safe havens", where global Jihadist groups would be able to establish operations with impunity.

But I accepted that there were likely those in power - such as Democrats in congress and the Obama administration - whose moral courage I had faith in, and more specifically who had access to expert advice that I did not.  Now that the planned draw-down nears, and yet the situation seems no better, one wonders whether it was worth it after all.  Will we achieve anything like stability there in the next year?  Or two?  Or ever? And with recent activity in Somalia and Yemen, the "safe-haven" argument seems less and less important after all.

As popular sentiment grapples with this reality, appeals to the humanitarian aspects of the war have grown louder.  Time magazine recently presented the case on its cover:

Peter Worthington at the Frum forum said this:
If anything indicates the need for a civilized presence in Afghanistan, it’s the recent slaughter of 10 aid workers by the Taliban.
But I don't think that's indicated at all.

First, “by civilized presence” he's speaking of our troops, for whom we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars, not to mention putting their lives at risk, and it is not at all clear whether they are now or will ever be a “civilizing presence” to that wretched and chaotic region.

Second, if we’re going to start arguing that any country in which horrendous abuses of human life are occurring ought to be invaded at great expense, the murder of 10 aid workers hardly puts Afghanistan at the top of the list.

If the question is “should Afghanistan not be the way it is?”, the answer is obviously “no.” But reality doesn’t care what you or I think. Thus we are forced to make rational decisions about what we should do based upon what we can do. Whether fighting the Taliban might result in a justifiable diminution of terrorist safe-havens is one argument. But humanitarianism is quite another. There are many areas of the world in which we can spend much less money and alleviate much more suffering.

I'm not sure our options are any better than they have ever been.  I'm really worried about what Afghanistan will look like when we leave.  But at some point, you just have to say, "it's a shitty world", and hope for the best. Are we there yet?  Again, I feel like I need to defer to those in power whom I trust to a degree.  In many ways I'm thankful I don't have to make the decision.  I'm OK with that.  This is why we elect people we respect.  But it doesn't feel much better.

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