I’m curious to know what Afghanistan David Brooks visited? The deeply conservative NY Times columnist wrote about his recent trip to Afghanistan last weekend, making these sweeping generalizations that Afghans are “warm and welcoming” of our ever-increasing military presence; that the US military is “well through the screwing-up phase of our operation”; coalition forces are learning quickly; aid agencies have no chance until the military kills all the “bad guys”; Afghan leadership is improving; and that 17,000 troops indicate the US is “finally taking this war seriously.” Either Brooks spent all his time hanging out with military leaders or there’s a whole crisis he’s deliberately trying to downplay.
What war Brooks thinks we can win with 17,000 troops is anyone’s guess. As I’ve written before, most foreign policy experts agree that 17,000 troops will be insufficient to achieve stability in Afghanistan. Andrew Bacevich, for instance, said 17,000 “hardly amounts to more than a drop in the bucket.” But if Brooks disagrees with critics on the left who claim the Obama administration is simply rehashing the Iraq surge strategy, what about voices on the right like Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who claim the only way to bring about “success” in Afghanistan (as they define it) is through an all-out war that requires a massive, long-term military commitment?
As a point of comparison to Brooks’s limited revelations, let’s look at Director Robert Greenwald’s recent account of what’s going on in Afghanistan. Greenwald, who was in Kabul last week, said that while there’s love and respect for President Obama and the United States, nearly everyone he spoke to believes more troops aren’t the answer. The Afghan people Greenwald met–which included members of the Afghan parliament, Afghan Women’s Network, Awakened Youth of Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, and members of the Taliban committed to negotiating peace–want to see the Obama administration commit 17,000 teachers or 17,000 doctors, not 17,000 soldiers. Absent from Brooks’s column was Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis; the rampant malnutrition and unemployment that can’t be solved through military means. Absent was any mention of Afghan people, women included, who are opposed to both military escalation and the Taliban. As Greenwald mentioned in his recent MSNBC appearance, the only bomb Afghans want dropped is an education bomb.
On the surface, it might appear, as Brooks suggests, that the US is taking this war seriously by committing 17,000 more troops and 4,000 trainers to build up Afghan security forces after the Bush administration left Afghanistan in the dust to pursue an unjust, unnecessary war in Iraq. But the reality is that the resurgence of militant Taliban fighters is due to the presence of more US troops. Read Gilles Doronsoro’s Carnegie Endowment article, “Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War,” which concludes that US military presence will only perpetuate the Taliban insurgency, and the best way to weaken the Taliban is to reduce armed confrontations. Not send in a limited number of troops that will become targets for the Taliban. And definitely not wage more airstrikes, since the 522 Afghan civilian deaths the UN attributed to Western airstrikes last year are fueling Afghan animosity toward US forces and leaving Afghans with little choice but to support the Taliban.
It’s amazing to see two such intelligent Americans come away from their trips to Afghanistan with such disparate takes on the crisis. While Brooks was meeting with military leaders and counterinsurgency experts who seemed likely to tell him coalition forces are ahead of the learning curve, Greenwald was witnessing 25 members of the Taliban lay down their weapons because all they want are jobs.
What’s clear is that both Brooks and Greenwald reaffirmed their respective views from having spent time in Afghanistan. Brooks more firmly believes military escalation is the answer, while Greenwald is more convinced than ever that more troops will further destabilize both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while failing to address Afghanistan’s dire humanitarian needs. What I’d like to see is Brooks and Greenwald go head-to-head in a substantive debate on this war, share their experiences, and let us decide how we think the Obama administration and Congress should proceed.