For as long as I can remember, Afghanistan has been, in one way or another, a failed state: one of those countries whose government is hateful to its own people, in dubious and intermittent control of its territory, and as a result liable to attract all sorts of really unpleasant people who plague not just the Afghans, but everyone else as well. Every so often, when I am thinking about one of these countries, I feel like throwing up my hands and saying: why don't we just go in and fix it? Normally we can't, since normally one is not supposed to go around invading other countries without some very compelling reason: having been attacked, facing a clear and imminent threat which can be met by no other means, stopping an ongoing humanitarian disaster.
However, if by some total misfortune one of these conditions is met, we can legitimately invade such a country. And then we have it in our power to transform it from an ongoing disaster into a normal country. A chance like this comes along only very rarely, and it should not, in my opinion, be squandered without some very good reason to do so. For countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, and the like are, as I said, a plague both to their own people and to those around them; a persistent source of significant problems that there is, normally, no good way to set right. When the opportunity to solve these problems once and for all comes our way, we would be fools to pass it up. This is all the more true in the case of Afghanistan, since in this case a second very rare condition existed: there was someone to run the country who both was decent and had popular legitimacy. (I am not saying that Karzai is perfect; just that it is very rare, under the circumstances, for there to be someone who is non-disastrous, and that this, too, was an opportunity that should not have been squandered.)
In the case of Afghanistan in particular, I think we should have done the following: first, sent in more troops, enough to provide security not just in the immediate vicinity of Kabul, but throughout the countryside. In so doing, we could have broken the power of the warlords. That power consisted in the fact that they had private armies with which to terrify and extort cooperation from the people; it would probably not have survived any serious attempt on our part to establish security throughout the country. This, in turn, would have enabled the government to assert itself throughout the country, and would have provided the security needed for the establishment both of the rule of law and of economic activity not undermined by extortion and corruption. My sense, based on everything I've read, is that the Afghan people (unlike the people of, say, Fallujah) badly wanted this to happen. We should have done it.
Second, we should have provided what George Bush promised: a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. Obviously, Afghanistan had been more or less completely ruined by decades of war. Having taken it over, we should have rebuilt the infrastructure, built schools, dug wells, whatever, in order to give it a fair chance of getting back on its feet. And we should, wherever possible, have done this in ways that employed Afghans, since they were desperately poor after the years of war, and badly needed the money. Also, getting money into the hands of Afghans, in exchange for badly needed work, would (if I have any grasp of economics) have enabled more of them to start their own shops and businesses, thereby hastening the day when Afghanistan was really back on its feet.
Thirdly, when we had done this -- when the rule of law was established, the government's authority secure, army and police forces trained and equipped, and enough of the country rebuilt -- we should simply have left, without strings or conditions. We should have continued to make aid available as needed, but we should have treated them like an independent country, not like a fiefdom or a vassal.
Consider the benefits of this. First, and most obviously, Afghanistan would have been set on its feet in a way that would probably have lasted. This in itself would have been a huge benefit: as I said above, failed states cause no end of problems for everyone around, and we would have moved Afghanistan out of the group of failed states and into the group of normal countries, probably for good. The fact that Afghanistan would never have harbored al Qaeda again is the most obvious benefit of this, and the one most relevant to the war on terror; but it is not the only one.
Second, had we gone in with the number of troops this plan would require, we would have had a much better chance of capturing Osama bin Laden.
Third, had we established a government in Afghanistan whose authority extended throughout the country, and in addition laid the groundwork for Afghanistan to be an economic success, it would have been much more likely that the country would not have gone back to opium production, at least not on the same scale. This would have been a good thing in its own right, but also, as noted in my last post, it would have deprived al Qaeda of a source of funding.
Fourth, doing this would, in my view, have created a lot of good will towards us in the Middle East, and serious confusion on the part of people who hate us. In the final analysis, we can hire all the Madison Avenue people we want, create radio stations with nifty new programming, etc., and as long as people in the Middle East believe that we care about only two things, their oil and allowing Israel to do whatever it wants, we will not succeed in winning them over. We had a chance to do something genuinely different, and genuinely good, that would have made it a lot harder for people to think that we are bent on dominating the Muslim world. (This is why my third step really matters.) Moreover, this good thing would have been carried out right across two relatively porous borders from two countries whose people we should particularly want to influence: Iran and Pakistan.
And finally, this last point would be true because we would have done a genuinely good thing, worthy of our country and its generosity. In this case, what's right and what's in our national interest seem to me to coincide.
Would it have worked? It's hard to say: that's the problem with counterfactuals. I do think it would have been more likely to turn out well than Iraq, for a variety of reasons that I'd be glad to spell out if anyone wants to know. But we'll never know, since the Bush administration chose not to try. Instead of putting in the troops needed to do it right, the Bush administration decided to go in with a very small force. They let Afghans do crucial tasks that we should have done ourselves, most obviously in Tora Bora. (Parenthetical note: When I hear Republican convention speakers say that John Kerry will "outsource our national defense", I find it really galling, not just because it's not accurate about Kerry, but because I find it hard to listen to this claim coming from the people who chose to outsource catching Osama bin Laden.) They decided not even to try to establish security outside Kabul, and they discouraged others who wanted to.
Now Afghanistan is in chaos. There is no security in the countryside. Aid groups are leaving the country because it is too unsafe to work. The Taliban and al Qaeda are operating in the countryside. Opium production is back up, and is helping to finance al Qaeda. This is all the completely predictable result of our failure to put in the resources needed to do the job right.
As I said at the beginning of my post, I think that we had an opportunity to do a really good thing, an opportunity that comes along only very rarely, and that we chose to squander. I also think that this decision was completely wrong with respect to the war on terror. The short-term cause of al Qaeda being in Afghanistan was the fact that the Taliban chose to give them safe haven. We toppled the Taliban, thereby dealing with this problem. But the underlying cause, the one that made it possible for Afghanistan to have a government that gave al Qaeda safe haven, was the fact that Afghanistan was a failed state. When the Bush administration had it in their power to choose between treating the symptom alone or treating both the symptom and the underlying disease, they chose to treat the symptom alone. I thought at the time that this was completely inexplicable, since, it seemed to me, this virtually ensured that al Qaeda would set up operations in Afghanistan again. (I mean, it's not just any failed state; it's one in which they're already comfortable working.) I very much hoped that I was wrong. I do not think I was.
I regard our decision not to try to do Afghanistan right as one that will allow al Qaeda a haven that we could have denied them, and thus one that will, in the long run, make us and therest of the world less safe. Why the Bush administration chose this course is, to me, inexplicable, and it is one more reason why I will not vote for them.