Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hearts and minds

I’d support the war in Afghanistan if it were a real war (i.e., killing the bad guys), but it’s not a real war. It’s an outreach and public works program. Running water won’t spread Western values to the jirga-ruled villages of rural Afghanistan. As Diane Ravitch writes, “No amount of outreach, no concessions, no sweet talk will persuade them to abandon their jihadist ideals. They are not persuadable.”

Imagine a nomadic shepherding village deep in the hinterland. They’re visited by an al-Qaeda lieutenant, who is a cousin of one of the jirga elders. While establishing trust and credibility among the elders, the lieutenant educates the teenage boys of the village in the Quranic justification of jihadism, how to exploit their knowledge of the local geography to evade the infidels, how to use civilians for operational cover, and how to pack bombs with nails and ball bearings to maim their victims.

This scenario is playing out all across Afghanistan. The enemy is not al-Qaeda or Taliban per se. The enemy is the Afghanis themselves. Americans, being from the outside, ipso facto cannot penetrate their local, backward ways.

Returning to the example of the secluded village: If American soldiers were to kill the al-Qaeda lieutenant, the entire village would become radicalized. But the soldiers can’t just stand by and let Afghani boys be recruited by the bad guys.

So what do we do? I submit two strategies, neither of them easy or even preferable. What Afghanistan needs is a dumbed-down, nationalist version of a counterinsurgency (i.e., home-grown agents who propagandize against jihadism). We can start with the brightest of the Afghan National Army recruits, while washing out the rest—here’s why. Cultivating these agents will take years. It will take years more for the operation to yield positive results.

The second strategy is to exterminate them. Rain bullets on their turbaned heads and bombs on their ramshackle rooftops. To those who object to this on moral grounds: We cannot wait for jihadi recruits to maim Americans and Afghanis before taking them out of play. Jihadism is a choice. Those who make it deserve death. To those who object on strategic grounds: If this makes new enemies of “fence-sitting” Muslims, they were never sitting on the fence to begin with. They were biding their time, waiting for an excuse to join their coreligionists.

This, of course, is unthinkable.

The assumption that the troop surge would work in Afghanistan because it worked in Iraq was flawed from the start. Iraq has abundant natural resources, a pro-Western upper class, and a relatively effective central government. Afghanistan is a primitive backwater and has none of those factors that contributed to the surge's success in Iraq.

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