Hope for Afghan mission afterall?

28 03 2009

Just as Harper lowers expectations on Afghanistan, David Brooks (who recently spent 6 days there) has a different view.  Key for Brooks is understanding the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, and why it is still possible to succeed in the latter:

In the first place, the Afghan people want what we want. They are, as Lord Byron put it, one of the few people in the region without an inferiority complex. They think they did us a big favor by destroying the Soviet Union and we repaid them with abandonment. They think we owe them all this.

That makes relations between Afghans and foreigners relatively straightforward. Most military leaders here prefer working with the Afghans to the Iraqis. The Afghans are warm and welcoming. They detest the insurgents and root for American success. “The Afghans have treated you as friends, allies and liberators from the very beginning,” says Afghanistan’s defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak.

Second, we’re already well through the screwing-up phase of our operation. At first, the Western nations underestimated the insurgency. They tried to centralize power in Kabul. They tried to fight a hodgepodge, multilateral war.

Those and other errors have been exposed, and coalition forces are learning. When you interview impressive leaders here, like Brig. Gen. John Nicholson of Regional Command South, Col. John Agoglia of the Counterinsurgency Training Center and Chris Alexander of the U.N., you see how relentless they are at criticizing their own operations. Thanks to people like that, the coalition will stumble toward success, having tried the alternatives.

Third, we’ve got our priorities right. Armies love killing bad guys. Aid agencies love building schools. But the most important part of any aid effort is governance and law and order. It’s reforming the police, improving the courts, training local civil servants and building prisons.

In Afghanistan, every Western agency is finally focused on this issue, from a Canadian reconstruction camp in Kandahar to the top U.S. general, David McKiernan.

Fourth, the quality of Afghan leadership is improving. This is a relative thing. President Hamid Karzai is detested by much of the U.S. military. Some provincial governors are drug dealers on the side. But as the U.N.’s Kai Eide told the Security Council, “The Afghan government is today better and more competent than ever before.” Reformers now lead the most important ministries and competent governors run key provinces.

Fifth, the U.S. is finally taking this war seriously. Up until now, insurgents have had free rein in vast areas of southern Afghanistan. The infusion of 17,000 more U.S. troops will change that. The Obama administration also promises a civilian surge to balance the military push.

Sixth, Pakistan is finally on the agenda. For the past few years, the U.S. has let Pakistan get away with murder. The insurgents train, organize and get support from there. “It’s very hard to deal with a cross-border insurgency on only one side of the border,” says Mr. Alexander of the U.N. The Obama strategic review recognizes this.

Finally, it is simply wrong to say that Afghanistan is a hopeless 14th-century basket case. This country had decent institutions before the Communist takeover. It hasn’t fallen into chaos, the way Iraq did, because it has a culture of communal discussion and a respect for village elders. The Afghans have embraced the democratic process with enthusiasm.

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