Politics & Policy

They Chose Freedom

Afghanistan and the battle of ideas.

Hamid Karzai’s inauguration December 7 as Afghanistan’s first democratically elected president was a milestone in Coalition efforts to defeat terrorism, and more broadly in the mission to bring popular forms of governance to countries that have been exploited by terrorists and dictators alike. The press pays little attention to Afghanistan, certainly less than to Iraq; one usually hears news from that corner of the world only when it is bad. But the advent of the Karzai presidency is unreservedly good news.

Predictions of failure in Afghanistan have been easy to come by since the country was liberated in the fall of 2001 during Operation Enduring Freedom. Thus far, it seems the operation was aptly named; despite predictions to the contrary, freedom is enduring. It is sadly out of fashion in our country to be publicly optimistic, but the Afghan people believe in overwhelming numbers that the situation in their country is on the right track and will keep improving. An election-day poll taken by the International Republican Institute showed that 89 percent of Afghan voters think things are on the right track, and 92 percent believed the next year would show even more improvement. Their number-one priority for the new president was not reconstituting the Taliban way of life–their main concern was disarming warlords who might pose a future threat to their new-won liberty.

There is widespread discussion in U.S. policy circles about the need to engage in the battle of ideas, to undercut the ideological basis for terrorism. Policymakers have been grappling with this question for several years. The Defense Science Board recently released a major study on this topic under the rubric of “strategic communication.” It makes some useful suggestions on how to construct and deliver our message to the world. Engaging on the ideological level is useful, and not as difficult as one might think. Our ideas already win hands down with most people. When individuals are free to choose, as the Afghans are, they tend to choose freedom. We have a much better product to sell than the terrorists. Our best answer to any given radical Islamist fatwah is the Declaration of Independence.

To Afghans the “battle of ideas” is not an abstraction, an intellectual exercise, or a policy debate. In the last 25 years they were subjected to two grand experiments in coercive utopianism that laid their homeland waste. The first was undertaken by the Soviet Union in the 1980s to bring socialism to Afghanistan. The Soviets became embroiled in a ten-year guerilla war that eventually proved too much for them to handle. The root cause of the insurgency was that the socialist governments they set up failed to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people. The Afghans did not want to live as members of the red empire, with all that portended. Later the Taliban regime erected a totalitarian theocracy every bit as harsh as the Soviet-backed government, probably more so in terms of its impact on the daily lives of the Afghan people. They sought to impose the same type of human purity that their guest and patron Osama bin Laden has lately been preaching to the rest of the Muslim world, with few takers. It is hard to imagine the degradation of daily life under the Taliban (I recommend seeing the film Osama, available on DVD, the perfect gift to induce cognitive dissonance in your antiwar friends).

It is difficult to believe that anyone other than a member of the hard-core extremist fringe would choose voluntarily to live under the kind of system our enemies are advocating. They certainly do not want to in Afghanistan. The reason why the Coalition is succeeding where the Soviets and Taliban failed is that we are promoting the kind of society, the kind of life, that people actually want. They are more able to speak their minds, more prosperous, and feel safer. And it is a greatly underreported fact that the Afghan people have a very favorable view of foreign-aid workers (80-percent approval according to an extensive survey released last summer by the Asia Foundation) and U.S. military forces (67-percent approval) in their country. In fact, even among those who feel that Afghanistan was on the wrong track, only 14 percent mentioned Western or foreign influence as being the cause of their country’s problems.

The Afghan people have already seen the future promised by the radical Islamists, a society in which most forms of human expression are forbidden, women are chattel, and one is free to articulate any idea so long as it is written in the Koran or Hadith. They do not want it back. The Afghan people are tired of conflict and of being subjected to the experiments of the social planners. With our help, they have been given an opportunity to choose freedom, and to build a society that seeks true civic welfare rather than a chimerical moral perfection. President Karzai’s administration will benefit in the coming years from the sense of commitment in Afghanistan to the process of democracy, and the legitimacy derived from popular sovereignty. And if one wants to join battle on the level of ideas, forget trying to engage the Islamists in a theological debate on the interpretation of a penumbra of a Koranic verse. Just say, “Go tell it to the Afghans.”

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.

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