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On Afghanistan: Hearts and Minds


It’s all true, as Yon, Robbins, and Lieberman write below: The Obama Adminstration has backed itself into a corner by constant comparison with Iraq that makes Afghanistan the “good war.” Afghanistan is politically primitive. There is only so much political progress we can expect, under the best of circumstances, even if we create a situation-appropriate surge–even with new supply routes (and stronger alliances) in Central Asia that circumvent some of our problems in Pakistan. Furthermore, the country has never been successfully governed from the capital, and Karzai is a weak leader. That was why he was chosen.

Given all that, and having read Joe Lieberman’s speech below, I was taken aback yesterday to read (in the NY Times) that the current administration is planning to step up military efforts–at the expense of development efforts. There is no place on earth that needs serious development assistance more than Afghanistan: Infrastructure, health care, and education are at levels that don’t quite qualify as “third world.” Not that we haven’t spent billions already. We have. But there has been massive U.S. incompetence and corruption in the handling of that money. The U.S. handed out contracts to all sorts of people who had no business pretending they could deliver goods and services; contractors pocketed money and handed much of it to the local warlords whose co-operation they needed. If some fraction trickled into actual projects–well, okay.

The Afghans, as Senator Lieberman notes, are a proud people. They are also a shrewd people. They know what things cost. When they see a school built with money that should have also built a clinic, another school for girls, and roads into and out of the town–they notice. And they conclude one of two things: Either the U.S. is spending not so much money, or the U.S. is just as corrupt and lawless a culture as the Taliban.

Since they will have only one major operation/and nation-building exercise on which to concentrate, the Obama adminstration might want to send in auditors and others to clean up the contracting and make sure that we are building what we are paying to build.

The Iraqi surge worked because ameliorating people’s safety concerns was the main requirement to get them to resume commerce, education, and some kind of politics. In Afghanistan, it is important to keep people safe from the Taliban, but also to offer more in the way of sustenance. Food, medicine, real education–a future–will be much more than what they will get from the Taliban’s fundamentalist Islamic teaching arm. 

Stepping up military involvement is good. But hearts and minds are more important still–especially if the ultimate goal is to quell the forces of radical Islam.


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