President Obama, don’t listen to the public on Afghanistan
By Sylvana Q. Sinha The media’s constant bellowing and measuring of public opinions poses a critical challenge to modern democracy: our leaders must balance the will of those who elected them with the need to make wise policy choices. On any given day one can find a poll that measures public sentiment on most any ...
By Sylvana Q. Sinha
The media’s constant bellowing and measuring of public opinions poses a critical challenge to modern democracy: our leaders must balance the will of those who elected them with the need to make wise policy choices.
On any given day one can find a poll that measures public sentiment on most any topic — ranging from whether the selection of Ellen DeGeneres as a new judge on “American Idol” was appropriate to whether the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting (for example, a Washington Post-ABC News poll finding that 51% say the war is not worth fighting; an Economist/YouGov poll finding that 32% agree with sending more troops and 65% expect that “The U.S. will withdraw [from Afghanistan] without winning.”).
All this ubiquitous polling makes it increasingly difficult for our leaders to actually lead us. McClatchy Newspapers recently reported: “[Vice President Joe] Biden has argued that without sustained support from the American people, the U.S. can’t make the long-term commitment that would be needed to stabilize Afghanistan and dismantle al Qaeda.” If this is true, it is absurdly shortsighted. The true test of a leader is whether she/he can guide us down the right path, even when it is the least popular one.
In the case of Afghanistan, President Barack Obama and his administration should not fall prey to the emotional and uninformed demands of an American public that for the most part does not fully understand the region. At last, President Obama appears to have carefully crafted a plan that is more thorough and realistic than anything that his predecessor, George W. Bush, ever imagined for Afghanistan. Regional experts have already expressed strong support for President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan, namely because of its focus on good governance and security. Ahmed Rashid said in an interview last week that President Obama’s plan is “the best thing we’ve got at the moment. It’s far more productive and incisive than anything that President Bush did. [Obama’s] committing the resources. This whole plan needs time — a minimum of two or three years…. [The American public’s] impatience is misplaced and unfair.” AfPak Channel editor Peter Bergen has also expressed his support for the plan: “[D]ramatically scaling up the size of the Afghan army and police is the best American exit strategy from the country, and that effort is at the heart of Obama’s plan.”
President Obama’s plan, which focuses on protecting the Afghan population and strengthening the Afghan security forces, deserves the attention and resolve of government officials and security analysts alike, above all because at this point, abandoning Afghanistan is the one option we absolutely cannot afford to pursue.
To anyone who has been paying attention to the geopolitics of the region, the consequences of withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan would be too dire to bear. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman has urged that disengaging from Afghanistan could destabilize Pakistan and even “guarantee” a future attack on the U.S. from the region — a sentiment that is shared by other regional experts, such as AfPak Channel editor Peter Bergen, who has said, “The United States can neither precipitously withdraw from Afghanistan nor help foster the emergence of a stable Afghan state by doing it on the cheap; the consequences would be the return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
Likewise, over the weekend, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British foreign secretary’s special representative for Afghanistan and a former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, emphasized the crucial role of the U.S. and declared that “walking away would destroy everything that has been achieved. … The pullout option is not one that any government could responsibly follow.”
U.S. military officials have echoed these concerns. For example, top NATO commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal’s confidential war review report emphasizes that the Taliban insurgency is more dangerous and will require greater resolve than previously acknowledged, according to anonymous staffers who spoke with The Washington Post. The Post reported: “The administration has narrowly defined its goal as defeating al Qaeda and other extremist groups and denying them sanctuary, but that in turn requires a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign aimed at protecting the Afghan population, establishing good governance and rebuilding the economy.”
The symbolism of ending our engagement in Afghanistan without concrete results would also send a dangerous message to the rest of the world, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by senior administration officials and other advisors. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton asserted recently on MSNBC’s Meet the Press: “To withdraw our presence or keep it on the low-level limited effectiveness…would have sent a message to al Qaeda and their allies that the US and our allies were willing to leave the field to them.” Similarly, former CIA officer and leader of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy review Bruce Riedel insisted that the U.S. could not abandon Afghanistan because “the triumph of the jihadism of al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic world.”
America’s commitment in Afghanistan is also fundamentally a question of accountability — accountability the U.S. must take for the messes that were borne out of years of neglect and under-resourcing during the Bush era.
In light of all we know about Afghanistan after nearly eight years, it appears the only reason for President Obama to lead the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan is because the public is tired of war. This is not a good enough reason, and making a decision based on it would not be an act of true leadership.
The U.S. lacks credibility in Afghanistan partly because it hasn’t truly invested in building trust with leaders on the local and tribal levels, and it hasn’t yet delivered on its promises to provide basic security, improve rule of law, and strengthen the government’s capacity at local and national levels.
I wasn’t in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but I have heard it was a period of great optimism. But the war was then badly mismanaged and neglected in favor of the war in Iraq, and the U.S. and NATO have failed to provide enough basic security to the Afghan people. Sarah Chayes pointed out in March: “The result [of America’s mismanagement of Afghanistan] has been that a country that in 2002 enthusiastically welcomed the young government of Karzai and the international presence is now turning back to the Taliban. This is not out of affinity or ideological bent but because — as was the case in 1994, when the Taliban first arrived on the scene — it represents a practical alternative to the reigning chaos.” Indeed, in some parts of the country, some Afghans say they want Mullah Omar and the Taliban to return to power. Perhaps their daughters couldn’t go to school when the Taliban was in control, but at least so long as their daughters didn’t go to school and followed all of the Taliban’s other rules, they believed they would probably be safe.
My guess is that most people would rather have peace and security, today, than the promise of rights or the ability to go to school, someday. U.S. special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke made a similar point to the BBC in March: “It’s wonderful to build a health clinic or school. It takes a long time and resources. But it takes a nanosecond to blow up that school or behead a teacher.”
Today, many Afghans do not feel secure in their own homes, and they are anxious and uncertain about the future. Their faith in the U.S. and NATO has waned; the military operation has squandered much of the good will toward the U.S. that existed in 2001. The civilian death toll continues to mount despite repeated NATO and U.S. assurances that civilian protection is at the heart of Gen. McChrystal’s tactics and strategy in Afghanistan. Development and nation-building projects have also been under-resourced and mismanaged and have rarely, if ever, adapted to the business and political realities on the ground. So much of donor aid activity reeks of desperation, often seeking quick fixes for problems that demand long-term solutions. Foreign aid money that has poured into the country — $168 billion from the U.S. alone through FY 2008 — has inadvertently helped to line the pockets of the Taliban and strengthen the insurgents.
It would be irresponsible to pull out of Afghanistan now. It is fair to say that President Bush’s policies created, or at best failed to avoid, many of the current problems in Afghanistan. With every day that passes, the U.S. becomes more deeply implicated in the failures of the Afghan state. As of today, Afghanistan’s August 20 presidential election remains unresolved due to thousands of claims of fraud, corruption, and voter intimidation, and, depending on what happens next, the U.S. may soon be seen as standing behind a new government that lacks real legitimacy.
At this stage, if the administration fails to hunker down and finish what its predecessor started in Afghanistan, only President Obama will be left to blame for what ensues. Abandoning Afghanistan now would create a regional nightmare that would almost certainly wake us up at night for many years to come. President Obama should not be swayed by a war-weary and ill-informed American public.
The U.S. needs to adopt a strategy, hinted at in reports of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s war review, that addresses its past and existing mistakes and lays a foundation for the eventual transition of security responsibilities to a self-sustaining Afghan army and police force.
This is not only smart from a geo-political perspective — it is also simply the responsible, respectable thing to do. The election of Barack Obama offered a chance for America to re-earn some of its moral and political legitimacy. The international sensation when Barack Obama was elected President was a testament to the fact that people actually want to believe in the idea of a country that Barack Obama reminded us that America could be — a country that has integrity, behaves responsibly, and holds itself accountable for its mistakes.
In my short time working in Afghanistan on development projects, I have been inspired and humbled by the bright young Afghans with whom I’ve worked who desperately want to reclaim their country. They have the capacity and passion to do so if given a real chance. These young people have known primarily war during their lifetimes — from birth or early childhood, they were ruled by the Soviets and then the Taliban and now the U.S./NATO presence. Somehow, they maintain hope and patriotism despite very real experiences of pain, personal tragedy, and disillusionment. Still, most of them didn’t vote on August 20. They didn’t believe it would make any difference who was elected, because neither their central government, nor the U.S. support propping it up, was to be trusted. Moreover, some did not return to their home districts to vote out of fear for their safety.
My Afghan friends deserve a real chance for their country. At the same time, the U.S. can earn credibility — in Afghanistan and abroad — only through a real commitment to the Afghan people. Top experts on counterinsurgency, terrorism, and South Asia have been working closely with the Obama administration to craft an Afghanistan strategy. A real commitment will require patience and hard work. It will also require time. It may not be popular. It is, however, President Obama’s responsibility to use the bully pulpit of his presidency to present his evidence and experts and convince the American public why we must keep it up in Afghanistan. We do not elect our leaders to act as our puppets. We elect our leaders because we trust them to make educated decisions that are true to American values — even when those decisions are not the most popular ones. I hope President Obama does not let me, and Afghanistan, down.
Sylvana Q. Sinha is an attorney working in Afghanistan on development projects.
Ricky A. Bloom/USAF/Getty
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