I am the first to understand how hard it is to change thinking on policy in Afghanistan, because I am one who had to do this. In a March 17 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens laments,
why are the people who cheered Mr. Obama [to raise the stakes in Afghanistan]...now running for the exit signs? Why, for example, is New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, the paper's reliably liberal tribune, calling Afghanistan a "quagmire" -- after denouncing the Bush administration in 2006 for "taking its eye off the real enemy in Afghanistan"?
During both the Kerry and Obama campaigns, I was one advocate for a pullout from Iraq and a shift of troops to Afghanistan. It was a political argument as well as a military one.
George Bush brilliantly conflated the Iraq War with the War on Terror. It was necessary to pry apart this conflation. My rebuttal was to remind folks that bin Laden had attacked from Afghanistan, not Iraq, and that this and the Pakistani mountains were the true front.
Anything else is singing Kumbaya. Any presidential candidate who said: "Let's examine why we were attacked in the first place, and fix that" would have been dismissed as wanting to "have group therapy with terrorists."
Obama, wisely, gave no room to the far-right to accuse him of singing Kumbaya by wanting to withdraw from Iraq. He wasn't retreating. He was moving sideways. The attack was still on, just different. It's a testament to Obama's political instincts that he positioned himself in this way. Kerry never figured it out, and tried to say both retreat and not-retreat from Iraq at the same time, leaving it to Bush's general unpopularity to eke out a victory. Obama did figure it out, and said pull back in one place so we can attack in another. The problem is, now he is really doing it.
It's a problem because we know much more about the insurgency than when Obama was campaigning a year ago, and trying to ward off the dove label on national security. The tragedy is we are now stuck in a paradigm as wrong as Bush's conflation of Iraq with the War on Terror, and as hard to shake loose.
It takes an effort to believe that not all Taliban are terrorists, and not all are driven by the radical Taliban ideology. It took a lot of research for me to believe it. But sure enough, what Afghans themselves were telling me, and what Joe Biden finally admitted, is true. In Afghanistan, a country with 40 percent unemployment, where 50% of children are stunted from malnutrition, 70% of "Taliban" are itinerants who fight because it pays money to feed their families and it's the only job in town. About $8 day, a more than decent wage there.
As I dug deeper, the more alarmed I became. The evidence all pointed in one direction. Reconstruction? It never happened. The billions were taken by contractors like Louis Berger Group, just as Halliburton did in Iraq, and precious little ever got to the Afghan people. The sewage in Kabul to this day runs in open trenches, and on a hot day the stench across the city is unbearable. Three-fourths of the country has no easy access to safe drinking water, and for this reason 1-in-4 children die before the age of five from preventable disease. A full 8 years after the American occupation, of American responsibility, Afghanistan still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Shame on us.
The convenient talking point is that the Afghan government is corrupt, and millions disappear. The less convenient one is, when the American contractors for building schools and bridges came in, Afghans sat back and watched how the big boys did it, stealing by the billions and not fulfilling their obligations.
The comments I receive on my writings are understandable to me: "you'll never stop the Taliban from fighting by buying them off with ten-dollar-a-day jobs"; " "these are jihadists ready to die, you are naive." They are understandable because I was skeptical too, given the radical jihadist, death-or-victory paradigm. But that's not Afghanistan.
A 2005 ABC News poll showed that nearly 70% of Afghans approved of the US presence. 91% preferred the Karzai government to the Taliban. And 56% saw the return of the Taliban as the greatest danger to the country. These numbers have worsened as civilian casualties mount and economic misery is prolonged, although still only 5% of Afghans want to see a return of the Taliban. The startling message is that we did not need to win hearts and minds. We had them, and we are losing them.
Skeptics say: you can't possibly tell me that if we create thousands of the simplest kinds of jobs in Afghanistan, that we can diffuse the insurgency? Cash-for-day-labor jobs clearing canals which were bombed-out by the Russians, clearing irrigation ditches, and improving roads with spades and gravel? That we can pay $10 a day and lure men away from the Taliban, because the Taliban pays eight? That's exactly what I'm saying. And yes, it's hard to believe. It's hard to believe a lasting solution can be conceptually simple.
Obama's Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke recently bemoaned the lack of U.S. knowledge on what drives Taliban recruiting. "I am deeply, deeply dissatisfied with the degree of knowledge that the United States government and our friend and allies have on this subject... We need to make sure we know what the appeal of the Taliban is." But in Brussels just last month, Vice President Joe Biden had already answered Holbrooke's question, and affirmed that the appeal of the Taliban was that it gave men a way to feed their families. Biden said: "Roughly 70 percent [of Taliban] are involved because of the money, because they are getting paid." Don't these guys talk to each other?
The latest attempt by a Blue Ribbon committees of scholars and experts to penetrate the presidential bubble of Obama's decision-making is a report from the prestigious Asia Society. The co-authors include Dr. Barnett Rubin, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and Ambassador Karl Inderfurth. It is vigorous in recommending an abrupt change in course which includes:
--The development of a job creation initiative
--Combating narcotics by increasing employment through infrastructure projects.