Beware, America. You are about to be duped by an alliance of Obama-niks and Bush-ites who, together, are laying the groundwork for nation-building in Afghanistan -- nation-building in Iraq having worked out so well (insert acid shot of sarcasm here). Only they are not going to call it "nation-building."
Worse, they are forging ahead without heeding the remedial lesson of Iraq: No matter how many American dollars spent, no matter how many American lives lost, it's not possible to transform an Islamic republic that enshrines Islamic law (Sharia) into an ally against Islamic jihad, even if Islamic jihad is euphemized as "extremism," "man-caused disasters" or "overseas contingency operations." That's because Islamic jihad is ultimately waged to extend Sharia. See the disconnect? Good. That's more than our experts can do, which is why it now looks as if we're going to give this flawed strategy another multi-trillion dollar try in Afghanistan.
This is what I heard at what you might call a "war is the answer" teach-in, Washington-style, at the Mayflower Hotel this week. There, a conference sponsored by the newly formed neoconservative think tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative, brought an audience of media and policy types up to war-in-Afghanistan speed. And, as usual in Washington, they did it without ever once mentioning "Islam" (until I asked a quick question at the end).
This was neither a secret session of the so-called "neocon cabal" -- although some charter members were present -- nor an Obama White House war room presentation. Still, I caught the faintest whiff of backroom smoke in talk of just how "clever," as Carnegie's Ashley Tellis put it, the Obama team was for packaging a nation-building agenda in the terminology of fighting Al Qaeda, a far narrower and presumably more popular objective. Robert Kagan noted that President Obama may not be talking about democratization, but his goals are similar. Hence, the warm enthusiasm for the Obama Afghan policy from such Iraq War proponents as Kagan, his brother and Iraq "surge" co-author Frederick Kagan, the Weekly Standard's William Kristol, and by John Nagl, a co-author of the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency manual and fellow of the Center for a New American Security, a left-leaning think tank associated with Obama defense policy circles.
And what are Obama's goals? Below the headline news of targeting Al Qaeda, and expanding Afghan police and army (but not enough, speakers agreed), the president spoke last week of advancing "security, opportunity and justice, not just in Kabul but from the bottom up in the provinces." That's a lot of security, opportunity and justice to advance even for Kabul, where the supreme court there recently upheld Pervez Kambakhsh's 20-year prison term for "blasphemy," and Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently signed a Sharia-influenced law that legalizes Shiite marital rape, among other anti-women measures, to curry favor with Shiite clerics. (One opponent said the law was "worse than during the Taliban.")
President Obama also discussed the importance of "not (turning) a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders." The fact that Afghan corruption -- an endemic, culture-based, veritable Afghan national pastime -- is now considered a U.S. problem is testament to the utopian lure of nation-building.
Question is, will the American people support this wild mongoose chase after six extremely mixed -- no, failed -- years of nation-building in Iraq? There, despite post-surge security gains, the nation we have built remains "fragile" and "uneven," according to the most recent Pentagon report, even as the United States prepares its exit. Had the State Department not granted Iraq a waiver, it would also be designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the worst rating for religious freedom violations. Meanwhile, U.S.-liberated Iraq remains an enthusiastic participant in the Arab boycott of Israel, and an OPEC member that never even let a U.S. humvee fill up for free. And Iraq consistently votes with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) against the United States at the United Nations. Never mind -- what's a few trillion dollars among non-allies?
Onto Afghanistan, where we are told U.S. national security depends on denying sanctuary to Al Qaeda and related jihadists. Meanwhile, the world is riddled with jihadism in the form of active agents, sleeper cells, propagandists and sympathizers from the Bekaa Valley to Belgium, from Iran to London, from Saudi Arabia to South Florida. Nearly eight years after 9/11, the United States still has unsecured borders, but it is Afghanistan where we must establish security and clean government -- for our own good.
Why? Frederick Kagan said "we have to establish the legitimacy of the Afghan government (because) that's how you end an insurgency." John Nagl was more emphatic still, stating, "If we ever want to leave, we have to build an Afghan government that can accomplish those goals (of good government) on its own."
If we ever want to leave?
During a coffee break, I asked military historian Frederick Kagan whether there was any successful historical model for this strategy. Ticking off a few non-matches including the Boer War in South Africa, Malaya, and civil war in El Salvador, he, a little sheepishly, offered Iraq.
Heaven help the United States.