by Arend Jan Boekestijn (original article in Dutch)
Pundits are wont to remind us lately of George Orwell's words: the fastest way to end a war is to lose it. Afghanistan has divided the West. We have acted so recklessly that it appeared at times as if losing the war in Afghanistan was indeed the object. But it would have dire consequences for Western security.
For those who are taking pleasure in debunking Obama: losing the war in Afghanistan is no option. As long as Europe seeks strength in diversity, appeasement and cashing in on peace divident we shall have to settle for Obama. Defeat means nothing less than an affirmation of the jihadists' view that the decadent West has no staying power.
Failure would be a colossal encouragement to even widen the front. In case you're not so sure: defeat in Afghanistan means that the Pakistani jihadists, who won't rest until they've appropriated the national nuclear arsenal, will be able to use Afghanistan as a hide out. To use the word defeat in such a situation, reveals a shocking deficit in responsibility.
It is wiser to learn of ones mistakes. In Afghanistan the US and NATO have chosen for a light military presence. This forced Karzai into making deals with warlords that were in their economic tribal interests. Some were even included in the Government: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Like half a century ago in South Vietnam, when President Ngo Dinh Diem was given to understand that he must democratize, Karzai was driven to an act of similar political suicide given the lack of a loyal opposition. This weakened his position even further. Karzai is quite literally consumed by paranoia. At night he rides his chauffeur driven car through Kabul, hoping to discover what is really going on.
Finally Karzai's political system was made to absorb such insane amounts of aid, that corruption, inherent in this patrimonial system, rose to alarming levels. In Africa we have corrupted many political systems with development aid, but that is insignificant compared to the intervention in Afghanistan. The mistakes in Africa were multiplied hundred fold.
And yet, in all this gloom over this fest of follies and flubs there's some reason for optimism. First of all, it is encouraging that Obama, like his predecessor George Bush, albeit reluctantly, chose for a surge. Admittedly, 30,000 extra troops is minimal, and half of what General McCrystal's requested, but Obama has come through in spite of severe opposition in his own party.
It is very well possible that 30,000 troops are too few to force a breakthrough in the war, but that sounds hollow from the mouth of an inhabitant of a continent whose contribution in the effort is only minimal compared to the American effort. Why doesn't Europe do more?
We are talking an involvement of decades here, not just a few years. Anyone who believes the West will never be able to muster the staying power may be right, but should stop complaining about severe damage to the alliance and a potentially fatal defeat in the fight against political Islam. It's not an attractive perspective. Moreover, alternative presence on the ground, like cruise missiles and drones, offer even less chance of success. Whether we like it or not, we won't fix this problem without boots on the ground.
The question is also if the economic crisis will allow America the cost of a major contingent after 2011. If not, we're in deep trouble as the EU is still unable to act militarily. The word 'still' reflects politeness rather than realism. There is no reason for joy over the economic resilience of Obama's country either.
Neither is there about Obama's inquisitiveness. But he steered wisely clear of mentioning democratization in the same breath as failing states. That's a bonus. Anyone who witnessed the blood-curdling spectacle of the Afghan election can rest assured. Ballots without functioning institutions and a loyal opposition - in other words, without a civil society - are a recipe for instability and in-fights.
Elections in closed societies are of a different nature than we're accustomed to. In civil societies temperatures may rise, but they lead to legitimization because the new Government reflects the results of the ballot box, irrespective how disastrously difficult a governing coalition may be formed.
In the absence of a civil society the dynamics of the ballot box potentially undercut the understanding between the leaders of the oligarchy not to use force. As a result few can resist the temptation of vote-buying. And that is precisely what happened in Afghanistan. When the second candidate withdrew, the Americans had no choice but to endorse Karzai. His legitimacy is at an all time low.
Above anything else Afghanistan needs stability and order. Only then there's the chance of a meaningful relationship between the center and the periphery. It is up to us to shield the Afghan regime from becoming a safe-house for those who wish to destroy Western civilization. Jihadists from Pakistan using Afghanistan as a launching pad to topple the regime in Islamabad must also be prevented.
Before we can safely speak of stability we need to ask ourselves why we're training an Afghan standing army. For Karzai? I don't think so. He's a dead man walking. A military corps will only bring stability if it reflects the existing balance of power, giving it legitimacy in the 19th Century meaning of the word. This will not enthuse everyone in the West.
The American proposal to finance tribal militias is very dangerous, but not inept. A tribal balance of power at the provincial and central level is not to be sneezed at. The alternative, training Afghan armed forces, is not without its problems. The current army is tribally unbalanced and it is no wonder upto a third has deserted. It's fairly easy for the Taliban to infiltrate such an artificial construct.
Stability will only be possible in Afghanistan if the Westminster model is neatly tucked away, to gather dust somewhere in a nondescript drawer. Think tribal, practical, undeterred, and bide your time. All other options, democratization, abandonment or just providing development aid, will lead to an instable order, at odds with vital Western interests.
What should the Netherlands do? Forget about being a leading ISAF nation, recoup, and go back to the area where vital interests are at stake: the Greater Middle East. And to those who think that the West lacks the political will to endure this fight over longer stretches of time, I can only advise you to seek refuge under the bed.
Arend Jan Boekestijn is a historian, assocated with the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. His book "De Prijs van een Slecht Geweten" (The Price of a Bad Conscience") (Aspekt Publishing) will hit the bookstores next Friday.