Sunday, December 6, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan decision

Um, why are we in Afghanistan, again?

Oh, yeah! 9/11! I remember now.

I seem to recall that a month or so after 9/11, over 80% of the U.S. public was in favor sending troops to Afghanistan. I don't have current numbers on the plan Obama announced a few days ago, but judging from the political ambivalence, I'm pretty sure it's no higher that 50%. Democrats especially want us to get out. (Update: Gallup says that 51% approve of Obama's plan.)

The problem is that Bush attacked, helped the allied Afghans push the Taliban out of power, but wasn't able to get rid of them completely. They're in control of a few cities, and they're in the background, waiting for the right opportunity to gain ground again. It's not that if the U.S. left the Taliban would take right over, but there could be another period of civil war, given the lack of a strong central government with armed forces loyal only to the government. The Taliban could, eventually, take over again. Or, they could gain control of some territory, enough to let Al-Qaeda operate freely again, and then we're back where we were before 9/11. Distracted by the Iraq war, the Bush government never committed the resources necessary to build a new government and a safe society in Afghanistan (if that can even be done, which, to be fair, is far from certain).

So, did we go over there to deliver an ass-kicking, or to make sure the Taliban can never operate so openly as to host Al-Qaeda as they did before 9/11? If it's the former, mission accomplished, let's go home. But if it's the latter, that's not done yet. I think that if you disapprove of Obama's plan, if you want the troops to come home right now, you need to face up to the fact that the Taliban will be back, and will bring Al-Qaeda with them. We'll see pictures of Osama Bin Laden standing in a field, dozens of terrorists standing behind him, promising an even deadlier attack against America. If you think that's a price worth paying for bringing our troops home now, then fine, that's not a totally unreasonable point of view. Maybe we'll be more successful in stopping future 9/11's before they happen. But I think a lot of people have lost sight of why we went there in the first place, and the fact that the job isn't done is Bush's fault, not Obama's. If you approved of the attack against Afghanistan in 2001, you can be legitimately disgusted that Bush screwed it up, but you should give Obama a chance to do it right.

I believe the problem is that most people aren't looking at it in terms of a security problem to be dealt with, but in terms of how they feel about it emotionally. "Our troops have been overseas too long" or "Afghanistan isn't worth it." In some sense I can understand and agree with both thoughts, but I wouldn't want a President who made decisions based on such thoughts. I want a President who makes a clear-eyed decision that weighs national security, values, world opinion, geopolitical strategy, military capability, and morality. Of course, domestic opinion should be considered, but the simple fact is that most people can't be experts on this kind of topic, and can't evaluate whether Obama's plan will be successful or not. I was asked at my workplace what I thought of Obama's decision, and my answer was something along the lines of, "I can't know whether it'll succeed, but I do know that if we do nothing, the Taliban will be back. I know enough about Obama to know that he must have thought about this deeply, he took his time, he asked for a variety of opinions, and he wouldn't have done this if he didn't think it was the plan with the best chance to succeed. So, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt."

I think that most citizens can't have an opinion on how to accomplish the military mission. I think that most citizens should have an opinion on whether the mission is worth doing, whether it's worth the human and financial cost, but I'd hope that people would have decent knowledge of the overall situation when making that decision. In this situation, I'm far from sure that that's the case.

Update (12/6): there's an excellent New York Times article outlining the arduous process that the Obama White House underwent to form and debate the policy that was eventually decided. If more people read articles like this, we would all be better off.

1 comment:

  1. I think a lack of support for a continued presence in Afghanistan is a failure on multiple fronts from various people, and none of them the president himself.

    1. As you say, people view things simplistically and emotionally and offer opinions without sufficient information or objective analysis.

    2. The media reports things in an inflammatory manner and has failed (almost certainly time and time again) to draw a line between 9-11 and Afghanistan such that most people don't even know why we're there.

    3. Many of the most vocal people will simply oppose anything Obama does, whether it is the same thing McCain would have done or the same thing Bush had been doing. These people are a minority, but they have a disproportionately loud voice. They're like one kid in the class who always has a tantrum and gets all of the attention while the other 29 are ignored.

    This was one of the best explanations of the situation I've ever seen. The clarity is something that a lot of news outlets should emulate so that there'd be fewer uninformed people.