A growing chorus of conservative, meaning Republican, commentators are complaining about the behavior of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. They object to widespread corruption in his government and a drift toward anti-Americanism in his rhetoric and actions. Some of these conservative critics have begun to suspect that the problem isn’t so much Karzai himself as Afghan political culture. They are right, for much the same reason that Vice President Joe Biden was right when he argued last year against increasing the U.S. military presence in the country. Afghanistan is not going to be a stable or secure country for the foreseeable future, because it is simply too backward — too illiterate, too superstitious, too divided. That’s why Osama bin Laden set up shop there in the first place.
If Al Gore had been elected president in 2000, most Republicans would have come to this realization many years ago. But because their party ran the entire U.S. government for the first six years of the “global war on terror,” they elected to concentrate their intellectual powers elsewhere. Now that the Democrats have controlled the White House for over a year, it is safe for conservative doubters to come out of the closet and acknowledge the obvious — that the Afghans aren’t like us, and the only reason they tolerate our military presence in their country is because we spend a billion dollars per week trying to protect their narco-warlord political system.
President Obama knew what a mess the country was before deciding to increase U.S. troop levels to 100,000 personnel, but in this as in so many other of his initiatives, he was following through on commitments he stated over and over again during the presidential campaign. Obama has done more to wipe out the remnants of Al Qaeda during his initial five fiscal quarters in the White House than the Bush Administration did during its last five years, but even as he embraced his military commanders’ judgment on how to deal with the Taliban, he had the good sense to insist on a limit to the time America would spend trying to turn Afghanistan into a halfway peaceful place. He has also been realistic enough to abandon the Bush Administration’s fantastic rhetoric about bringing western-style democracy and free-market economics to a country where many people still doubt the desirability of letting girls go to school.
The right answer to the security challenge posed by Afghanistan’s many failings is to continue prosecuting the air war against Al Qaeda in conjunction with Pakistani ground forces while building up Afghan security forces to a point where they are an adequate counterbalance to the Taliban. We can’t count on our NATO allies to stick around indefinitely, and our own presence will become increasingly unpopular once the Taliban threat wanes, so eventually the U.S. strategy will have to devolve to some mix of military assistance, intelligence gathering and selective airborne strikes against residual enemy forces. We will have to put up with the antics of people like Karzai because the Afghan political culture isn’t capable of sustaining anything better, but Republicans ought to admit to themselves — if not to the rest of us — that President Obama is doing about as much as is possible to cope with the dangers posed by a country that has never been a congenial place for proponents of democracy.
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