As last Friday’s Progress Report noted, and today’s underlines, President Obama has inherited a crisis in Afghanistan. The problems identified in the Center for American Progress’s December 2007 report still exist, and have gotten worse. There is a serious and growing debate within the progressive community over the U.S. and international mission in that country, and how best to complete that mission. While there are no easy answers, I think a couple of recent items might help to focus this discussion.
Dana Milbank has a very entertaining account of a presentation yesterday by Richard Perle, in which Perle attempted to absolve neoconservatism of any blame for George W. Bush’s foreign policy. From the accompanying video, it seems like everyone had a good laugh about it except Perle.
While it’s deeply gratifying to see a neoconservative ideologue like Perle attempting to distance himself from the staggering costs incurred by his ideas, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that neconservatism is a spent force. No matter how disastrous neoconservatism has proved in its actual application in the real world, no ideology which necessitates as much defense spending as neoconservatism does is ever really going to be allowed to “fail.”
Indeed, the day before Perle denied the existence of neoconservatism, across town at the American Enterprise Institute a panel of neoconservatives was proposing its application to the war in Afghanistan. Insisting that “there’s no good reason to think that we can’t succeed in Afghanistan if we set our minds to it,” Fred Kagan noted one of the ways in which “Afghanistan is different from Iraq.”
To take this issue of civilian casualties, I’d like to make a note. If you compare the damage that is done in Afghan cities and villages and towns, and the number of civilians that are wounded or killed in coalition attacks to the sort of damage that was done in Iraqi cities and villages and towns, “order of magnitude” doesn’t begin to describe it. If anyone has seen pictures of Ramadi or Fallujah, they looked like Stalingrad. Not a single building standing. Streets filled with rubble. Cities absolutely crushed.
The interesting thing is that when we were fighting those battles and doing that damage, on the whole the Iraqis were not bitching about collateral damage. You had nothing like the degree of upset about how many civilians were being injured and how much damage was being done to the infrastructure in Iraq at a much higher level of destruction than you have in Afghanistan at a much lower level of destruction.
I think there’s a cultural reason for that: Afghans don’t fight in their cities. Iraqis do. For good or ill, Iraqis expect to fight in their cities. That’s where the insurgents dug in, Saddam Hussein planned to dig in to the cities or lure us into an urban fight. It’s sort of understood that the battlefield is going to be there, that doesn’t mean that they don’t complain about it, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a problem, but it does mean that when the insurgents dig in and we root them out, the Iraqis don’t on the whole say “darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses.” They sort of accept that. Afghans do not.
Audio is here.
Given that Fred Kagan previously referred to widespread sectarian cleansing in Iraq as a “myth,” it’s not so surprising that he would dismiss complaints about the killing and maiming of civilians and the rubbling of entire neighborhoods as “bitching.” And it really doesn’t even need to be pointed out that what Kagan means by “setting our minds to it” is “have the will to kill huge amounts of people in order to achieve our goals.”
America, and Americans, are better than this. As we in the progressive community continue our debate over Afghanistan, and over national security more generally, it’s important for us to remember that. Neoconservatism is based in the idea that there’s no national security problem that can’t be overcome by the relentless application of the military force. Progressives understand that this is wrong, and that seeking international cooperation and consensus is a key force multiplier in the face of today’s challenges, of which Afghanistan is only one. Unlike conservatives, who only seem to locate a concern for human rights when they need an excuse to bomb someone, support for human rights is central to progressives’ worldview, which is why we support a conception of national security that encompasses real human security.
When the American people put Barack Obama in the White House, they rejected the base militarism and unilateralism of the last eight years, and they provided an opportunity for the emergence of a new consensus on national security. It’s important that progressives grasp this opportunity, and draw strength from our values as we develop ways to meet these challenges.
A friend emails to correct Kagan’s claim that “Afghans don’t fight in their cities.” He writes “Go back and look at what happened in the 1980s and 1990s in Kabul and other major cities.” He directed me to Larry Goodson’s Afghanistan’s Endless War, which describes how Kabul became a major battleground between mujahideen factions between 1992 and 1995:
Perhaps as many as 50,000 [were] killed and 150,000 wounded there, and hundreds of thousands…fled the city, large areas of which [were] reduced to rubble.