The unspoken assumption in Roger Cohen’s column is that if General McChrystal’s plea for “patience, discipline, resolve and time” is met and if the United States is more judicious and focused in its efforts, military and otherwise, in thirty years Afghanistan will be firmly in the American camp and will no longer harbor people whose sole interest is destroying the U.S. and its way of life. He seems to think that thirty years from now Afghanistan will no longer pose a security threat to the U.S. if America gives “mud-hat Afghans something to believe in-not least efficient courts, motivated police and easy credit.”
These beliefs are completely mistaken and evince a remarkable lack of knowledge and understanding about the nature of the Afghan people, the history of Afghanistan and the religious underpinnings of the war that is being fought there.
The Afghan people will simply not accept a prolonged American presence in their country and eventually will do everything they can to undermine and remove it, especially when demands are made on them and aid efforts are diminished, as they inevitably must be. They will take as much as they can for as long as they can but sooner or later they will toss the Americans out just as they tossed out the Russians, the British and many others before them. For the same reasons too. Afghans are a particularly duplicitous and prickly lot and there is no reason for the United States to think it can win their ‘hearts and minds’, in thirty years, a hundred years or a thousand years. No one else ever has so why should they? When Americans become too demanding or are no longer of any use, out they’ll go. In the meantime they’ll be manipulated and conned, like everyone before them.
In the same vein, it is worth noting that no foreign power has ever been able to occupy the country and impose its will there for any length of time, going all the way back to Alexander the Great and continuing to the present day. Coercion and bribery have never worked either. History is replete with examples of foreign powers coming to Afghanistan thinking they could conquer or hold the country for their own ends and finding that they could not. Afghans are a tribal people riven by ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences notorious for fighting among themselves for a wide variety of reasons. Historically, they unite for brief periods of time to get rid of the foreigners in their midst and then go back to carrying on as they always have. No amount of American economic or military power will prevent it from suffering the same fate, not in thirty years, a hundred years, a thousand years….
Cohen also fails to recognize the religious underpinnings of the war in Afghanistan. The Afghan people and the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters among them are all Muslims who think that infidels e.g. non-believers and transgressors, must be converted, subjugated or destroyed and that any behavior which is proscribed by Islam must be eliminated and/or punished. These are seen as religious obligations and are absolutely non negotiable. Since Americans are infidels by definition and practically everything they do or stand for is unacceptable, tolerating their presence in Afghanistan is not possible, regardless of any benefits that might accrue. Islam requires that infidels must be thought of and dealt with in certain ways, period. This factor alone guarantees that American expectations in Afghanistan can never be met because Islam is immutable and unchangeable and is going to continue to be predominant there for eons.
Does any of this mean that the United States should abandon Afghanistan and leave its people to their own devices? Not at all. Doing so would be disastrous for U.S. security. It would exponentially increase the possibility of large scale attacks on the American homeland and on American interests around the world and of nuclear weapons falling into terrorists hands. Pakistan would almost certainly become a fundamentalist Islamic state and NATO would most likely cease to exist, either of which would be catastrophic for the U.S. Terrorists everywhere would be emboldened and energized and would ramp up their activities. Like it or not, America must stay in Afghanistan. It must act very differently than it has in the past however.
The United States went into Afghanistan in the first place to root out and destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban in order to make America and Americans safer and more secure. That is exactly what the U.S. has shied away from and exactly what it must get back to. The only way to do that is through military means. The American military must be unleashed to do the job it was sent to do to begin with. Then and only then will those original goals be met. Serious, heavy duty counterterrorism is the answer, not fluffy, feelgood but ultimately futile counterinsurgency.