By Frank Wessling
Afghanistan is sometimes called “the graveyard of empires,” with good reason. From ancient Greeks and Romans to the modern Soviet Union, attempts by powerful outsiders to impose their will on those mountain tribes ended in failure.
The one exception was Islam. In the centuries immediately following Mohammed’s death in 632, Muslim forces brought a message that did resonate among the people. Today Afghanistan is practically all Islamic — an added reason why it remains a “graveyard” for 20th- and 21st-century armies from secular Western nations.
President Barack Obama is trying to cope with that reality now by taking a definite, public turn toward withdrawal of U.S. troops over the coming year and a half. If we were feeling strong and economically confident at home, this probably would not be happening. But we refuse to pay for the material costs of this adventure through current taxation, as we refuse to pay for so many other social costs. The resultant borrowing and expansion of the national debt is unsustainable both politically and in terms of fiscal stability.
It’s embarrassing to be called a “banana republic,” as if we had no sense of self-discipline. But if that’s what it takes to make us pull back from what increasingly looked like endless war, it’s a welcome cold bath.
The over-wrought “war on terror” that put us in Afghanistan and Iraq almost 10 years ago should be put behind us. The idea that those Islamic-dominated societies would take direction by us and move on our timetable should also be dropped. We have sacrificed thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on that conceit.
On the positive side, a fuller and more realistic meeting between Islam and the western world is being born out of what appeared a decade ago to be a deadly “clash of civilizations.” And across many Islamic-dominated nations an awakening to democratic values has begun to spread through populations formerly content with autocratic rule.
Afghanistan will continue to be a place where anti-western militants might find a home, as Osama bin Laden did. But we really have no choice but to let the internal forces there work out their response. We and our western allies simply cannot impose our way on them. We need to rely now on careful diplomacy that supports every tendency in the region toward healthy economic development along with expansion of human rights and free institutions.
We should also do whatever we can to encourage tendencies in Islam toward dialogue with the modern world rather than simple resistance or radical hostility. This will be a religious work that non-Muslims can affect only through friendship, but we need to be aware that it goes on and be sympathetic.
We know from our own Christian history that tension between “the world” and religious faith is a constant in life, not something solved like a puzzle with some magic historical key. We know the struggle is complicated and that not every one of our co-religionists agrees on how it should be conducted. But we keep trying. Let’s respect similar Muslim effort. The bomb-throwing radicals will have diminishing support.
At least 1,600 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and nearly $500 billion of our dollars have been spent on military operations. We don’t know how many Afghans were killed. All of this sacrifice has bought a less dangerous place for the world. It has also taken the most radical elements in that society out of power and inserted the beginning of more open social and political patterns. These limited and precarious gains may not feel like “winning” a war but it is a win for reasonable human progress.
As we trust Afghans more with controlling their own affairs we are in much better position than we were 10 years ago to observe and disrupt any attempted return of terrorist elements. The international policing cooperation against organized terrorism is much more relevant than military action to our safety now.
It’s time to begin a turn away from war in Afghanistan as we have in Iraq.