President Barack Obama has finally unveiled his administration’s Afghanistan strategy, and in some ways the new plan looks a lot like the old plan: vigorously pursue Al Qaeda and Taliban militants holed up in the forbidding mountains and valleys of the Northwest Frontier Province, build up Afghanistan’s police and security forces, invest heavily in reconstruction projects, secure Kabul and help the weak federal government to extend its reach to rural areas, and reach out to Afghanistan’s neighbors to help secure and stabilize the country.
Afghanistan is a test of who we are as a nation. We walked in with the overwhelming support of the Afghan people, who really did throw flowers and sweets at U.S. troops, the way we were told Iraqis would do.
There are, of course, some substantial differences between the Bush and Obama plans for Afghanistan. Chief among these is the Obama administration’s decision to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single unit (Af-Pak being the preferred designation), in recognition of the unavoidable fact that success in Afghanistan is impossible to achieve without stabilizing Pakistan. Obama seems also to have had more luck than his predecessor in getting America’s European allies to send more troops to help train Afghan police, as well as, one hopes, more money to help in the reconstruction process. The E.U. has thus far provided Afghanistan with about $1.7 billion in aid, a significant sum to be sure but barely double what Iran alone has given.
Speaking of Iran, the Obama administration has offered the Islamic Republic a seat at the table at the Afghanistan summit at the Hague. This is a wise decision, considering that, when it comes to Afghanistan, the interests of the U.S. and Iran are almost wholly in line: Neither country wants Afghanistan to become a haven for Al Qaeda and both need desperately to stem the flow of drugs pouring out of Afghanistan.
Perhaps the most significant departure from the previous strategy in Afghanistan is Obama’s recognition that the Taliban cannot be defeated by force alone; that, in fact, some 99 percent of the people we call Taliban have no connection to Al Qaeda and, by all accounts, can be brought to America’s side (or, at the very least, convinced to stop fighting American troops) for a few dollars; and the promise of semi-autonomy.
Beyond all this, however, there is a glaring difference in emphasis, if not in policy, between Bush’s and Obama’s conception of “victory” in Afghanistan. This president appears to have no interest whatsoever in anything akin to “democracy promotion.” His outline for the war effort makes no mention of nation-building and contains no serious commitment to bolstering the country’s lagging democratic institutions. Indeed, Obama barely mentioned the word democracy when presenting his new strategy to the press.
Obviously, this is a major departure from the vision for Afghanistan set forth by President Bush, who in December, two months after the mantle of leadership had already passed to Obama, went to Kabul to stand side by side with Hamid Karzai—the obviously well-meaning but totally inept and quite probably corrupt president that Bush placed in charge of the country—where he once again declared his support for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. “You know, I was thinking when I—right before we landed, how much Afghanistan has changed since I have been the president,” Bush said in a moment of tortured nostalgia. “In 2001, the Taliban were brutally repressing the people of this country. I remember the images of women being stoned, or people being executed in the soccer stadium because of their beliefs… we could have replaced one power person with another. That would have been, I guess, the easy route, and then just left it behind, say we've done our duty and we've upheld the doctrine—and said, 'OK, we're now going to take this group, replace them with this group'—and just got out of the way. But that's not—that, one, didn't learn the lessons of the '80s and the '90s. And secondly, the interest is to build a flourishing democracy as an alternative to a hateful ideology. And it's not easy work.”
It certainly is not easy work. In fact, it is work that has been made far more difficult by Bush’s bumbling and his misguided war in Iraq. But there are apparently those in President Obama’s inner circle—including, presumably, the president himself—who believe that work to be impossible and no longer worth pursuing. At a news conference in March, Obama declared his support for elections in Afghanistan, but he seemed to go out of his way not to talk of his vision for a democratic state. Instead he made brief mention of “a commitment to political and economic development.”
For the most part, President Obama was praised by the media for abandoning the florid democracy rhetoric of his predecessor and focusing instead on more narrow goals, like rooting out Al Qaeda militants. This is understandable. After the debacle of the last eight years, it is obvious why most Americans may have had enough talk of “democracy promotion,” particularly now that they have more immediate concerns, like the global economic meltdown.
But however foolish and misguided his attempts at “democratizing” the Middle East may have been, George W. Bush was right when he told his Afghan audience last December that “it’s in our interest that Afghanistan's democracy flourish.”
The truth is that our concern with Afghanistan’s future goes further than just our national-security interests. Afghanistan is a test of who we are as a nation. We walked into that country with the overwhelming support of the Afghan people, who really did throw flowers and sweets at U.S. troops, the way we were told Iraqis would do. Even after all this time, after we backtracked on our promises to rebuild the country, after we left the Afghans to be terrorized by Al Qaeda while we switched our focus to Iraq, after we allowed the country to be turned into what Secretary Hillary Clinton has called “a narco-state,” even after all that, almost half the population still holds a favorable view of the United States.
The war in Afghanistan is being called a test of Obama’s leadership. But it is also a test of America’s character. Whether most Americans like it or not, we made a promise to the Afghan people to help them build a freer, more prosperous, and democratic society. The world is watching to see if we will fulfill that promise.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to The Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the best seller No god but Godand How to Win a Cosmic War.