03.23.09

What Obama Doesn't Know About Afghanistan

After deciding to send 17,000 troops to Afghanistan this month, President Obama will announce his new strategy this week. Dan Rather, who has been reporting from Afghanistan for nearly 30 years, says America still doesn’t get it.

There’s been a lot of news concerning Afghanistan since President Obama took office, from the president’s decision to increase the U.S. force there by 17,000, to reports he is considering an outreach to moderate elements of the Taliban and being advised to carry out missile strikes in and around the Pakistan city of Quetta. Now there is word that President Obama will, within days, announce a new set of diplomatic and military tactics for the war he promised to put front and center.

As the president contemplates his options in Afghanistan, let us hope he realizes that the first thing to know about that country is that there are no experts. History, from centuries past up to recent experience, shows that those who claim the most knowledge and voice the strongest opinions about Afghanistan often know the least.

Whatever you think you know about Afghanistan is in direct inverse proportion to how often you have been there. The more you go there, the more you know how much you don’t know

This pattern of frequently-in-error-but-never-in-doubt about one of the more complex places on earth extends, unfortunately, to a lot of the people currently claiming expertise and offering the president advice. They are well-intentioned but have little real knowledge—much less wisdom—about Afghanistan. So it has been through the ages, especially among Westerners.

Your reporter has been in Afghanistan a fair amount over the past 29 years, beginning in 1980 just after the Soviets invaded and continuing through recent years. Perhaps the biggest lesson of these journalistic efforts has been: Whatever you think you know about Afghanistan is in direct inverse proportion to how often you have been there. The more you go there, the more you know how much you don’t know.

With this and history’s lessons in mind, the following thoughts are offered, for whatever they may be worth:

1.In pursuing this war, the U.S. needs to go big and go long or go home. To succeed within the parameters we have laid out for ourselves in Afghanistan will take a much longer military commitment and the spending of a lot more money over greater time than most people have been led to believe. Consider, for example, a report in the New York Times that even members of President Obama’s national-security team were taken aback by the projected cost of expanding the Afghan army.

Making a strong and enduring commitment in blood and money may be worth it—what we have done in and for South Korea, where we have been engaged militarily and financially for more than 60 years, is one starting point for consideration. But we can have no illusions, and we have not yet had a candid and meaningful national debate about what it may take to achieve our goals in Afghanistan. We have not thoughtfully considered, as a nation, whether we want to do this and whether we can do it even if we choose to.

2.Military power cannot win in Afghanistan, however one defines “win.” Military power can buy time, and it is essential for providing short- and medium-term security while helping to build up Afghanistan’s own security forces, but so-called soft power is the most important factor that outsiders such as the U.S. can bring to bear in that country. We must not underestimate the importance of helping to establish and imbed the rule of law, of building (and protecting) schools, of improving health care and access to water for personal use and agriculture—among many other civil society and infrastructure improvements.

Diplomacy is of paramount importance. No peace can succeed in Afghanistan without at least some cooperation from neighboring Pakistan, India, Iran, China, and Russia, along with the central Asia republics bordering southern Russia and Afghanistan. Each of those countries stands to gain from a peaceful, stable Afghanistan. Their cooperation will not be gained easily or quickly, but the sooner it is secured, the better the chances.

3.While the U.S. is not likely to completely eliminate opium production in Afghanistan, we must succeed in reducing it substantially if we hope to achieve even our most modest goals in the country. Afghanistan supplies an estimated 85 percent of the world’s opium, much of which is made into heroin. Opium not only provides a major part of the Taliban’s funding, it also acts as an obstacle to gaining international cooperation, as the corruption and other societal problems it breeds increasingly affect Russia, Iran, and much of Europe.

Let us be clear about this: Either we and the Afghans find ways to drastically reduce opium production or our overall mission—however we define it—fails. A major reduction in opium growth and trade won’t guarantee success, but there can be no success without it.

4. Finally, we need to better utilize the resources we have in Afghanistan. Women are the group that suffered the most under Taliban rule and, if enough of their voices can be heard and they can be empowered to matter, they could provide an invaluable bulwark against the Taliban’s return. Putting a heavy emphasis on improving conditions for women, children, and families is imperative. Some will say this can’t be done in an Islamic society as deeply traditional as that of Afghanistan. But where there’s a will there’s a way.

None of this can be done without major efforts by the Afghans themselves, which means that we need to listen closely to what Afghans want and how they propose achieving it. Theirs is an ancient society, with a rich history and culture. Afghanistan survived as a nation long before America was founded. Afghans have their own wisdom, which in some important ways differs from ours—or at least has different emphasis. We badly need to become knowledgeable about Afghan culture, learn from it, and respect it. The Afghan people are entitled to peace and self-determination and, indeed, ache for these things. They can have both, and the United States can help. But first we need to decide among ourselves whether we can provide enough help over a long enough period of time, and be candid in communicating our decisions to the Afghan leadership.

Dan Rather Reports on HDNet will devote an hour to Afghanistan and Pakistan, first airing Tuesday, March 24, at 8:00 PM Eastern Time.