Tom Friedman: It Has to Start With Them - Our options in Afghanistan are: lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small. I vote for early and small.
WHEN President Obama announced his decision to surge more troops into Afghanistan in 2009, I argued that it could succeed if three things happened: Pakistan became a different country, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan became a different man and we succeeded at doing exactly what we claim not to be doing, that is nation-building in Afghanistan. None of that has happened, which is why I still believe our options in Afghanistan are: lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small. I vote for early and small.
My wariness about Afghanistan comes from asking these three questions: When does the Middle East make you happy? How did the cold war end? What would Ronald Reagan do? Let’s look at all three.
When did the Middle East make us happiest in the last few decades? That’s easy: 1) when Anwar el-Sadat made his breakthrough visit to Jerusalem; 2) when the Sunni uprising in Iraq against the pro-Al Qaeda forces turned the tide there; 3) when the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was routed in 2001 by Afghan rebels, backed only by U.S. air power and a few hundred U.S. special forces; 4) when Israelis and Palestinians drafted a secret peace accord in Oslo; 5) when the Green Revolution happened in Iran; 6) when the Cedar Revolution erupted in Lebanon; 7) when the democracy uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Egypt emerged; 8) when Israel unilaterally withdrew from South Lebanon and Gaza.
And what do they all have in common? America had nothing to do with almost all of them. They were self-propelled by the people themselves; we did not see them coming; and most of them didn’t cost us a dime.
And what does that tell you? The most important truth about the Middle East: It only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them. If it doesn’t start with them, if they don’t have ownership of a new peace initiative, a battle or a struggle for good governance, no amount of U.S. troops kick-starting, cajoling or doling out money can make it work. And if it does start with them, they really don’t need or want us around for very long.
When people own an initiative — as the original Afghan coalition that toppled the Taliban government did, as the Egyptians in Tahrir Square did, as the Egyptian and Israeli peacemakers did — they will be self-propelled and U.S. help can be an effective multiplier. When they don’t want to own it — in Afghanistan’s case, decent governance — or when they think we want some outcome more than they do, they will be happy to hold our coats, shake us down and sell us the same carpet over and over.
As for how the cold war ended, that’s easy. It ended when the two governments — the Soviet Union and Maoist China, which provided the funding and ideology propelling our enemies — collapsed. China had a peaceful internal transformation from Maoist Communism to capitalism, and the Soviet Union had a messy move from Marxism to capitalism. End of cold war.
Since then, we have increasingly found ourselves at war with another global movement: radical jihadist Islam. It is fed by money and ideology coming out of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. The attack of 9/11 was basically a joint operation by Saudi and Pakistani nationals. The Marine and American Embassy bombings in Lebanon were believed to have been the work of Iranian agents. Yet we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, because Saudi Arabia had oil, Pakistan had nukes and Iran was too big. We hoped that this war-by-bank-shot would lead to changes in all three countries. So far, it has not.
Until we break the combination of mosque, money and power in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which fuel jihadism, all we’re doing in Afghanistan is fighting the symptoms. The true engines propelling radical jihadist violence will still be in place. But that break requires, for starters, a new U.S. energy policy. Oh, well.
George Will pointed out that Senator John McCain, a hawk on Libya and Afghanistan, asked last Sunday, “I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today?” with the clear implication that Reagan would never leave wars like Libya or Afghanistan unfinished. I actually know the answer to that question. I was there.
On Feb. 25, 1984, I stood on the tarmac at the Beirut airport and watched as a parade of Marine amphibious vehicles drove right down the runway, then veered off and crossed the white sand beach, slipped into the Mediterranean and motored out of Lebanon to their mother ship.
After a suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. military personnel, Reagan realized that he was in the middle of a civil war, with an undefined objective and an elusive enemy, whose defeat was not worth the sacrifice. So he cut his losses and just walked away. He was warned of dire consequences; after all, this was the middle of the cold war with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. We would look weak. But Reagan thought we would get weak by staying. As Reagan deftly put it at the time: “We are not bugging out. We are moving to deploy into a more defensive position.”
Eight years later, the Soviet Union was in the dustbin of history, America was ascendant and Lebanon, God love the place, was still trying to sort itself out — without us.