Monday, August 11, 2008

In the “war on terror,” looking for the “right front” makes diplomacy take a back seat

In her recent AlterNet column, Iliana Segura gets a lot right:

If the United States really wants to improve the situation in Afghanistan, it should start by ending the occupation. It should then cough up money for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. (One estimate puts the tab at $10 billion.) This is not just for the sake of Afghanistan, but for the sake of Americans as well, who are no safer today than they were when the planes hit the towers. Ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is the first, crucial step in that elusive goal of "winning hearts and minds" that the United States claims to be so committed to in the region. As Iraq has demonstrated, occupying armies are not a deterrent to terrorism. Occupying armies breed terror.

Most important, it's time to stop thinking of Afghanistan as the "right front" of the so-called "War on Terror" -- an idea that has been perpetuated by everyone from Barack Obama to Jon Stewart (who idiotically told Colin Powell in 2005, "the Afghanistan war, man did I dig that. I'd like to go again") -- and start questioning the legitimacy of the "War on Terror" itself. It is an idea that has been utterly and catastrophically discredited, most recently by the most unlikely of institutions, the RAND Corporation, which recently released a report that undermined the notion that soldiers can fight a "war on terror."

"Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism," wrote Seth Jones, the lead author of the study. "Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame achieved victory."

If the RAND Corporation, a think tank that traditionally operates in the service of war-making, no longer believes in the "War on Terror," why on Earth should we?

As did Nicholas Kristof (citing the same Rand research) in Saturday’s New York Times:

Our intuitive approach to fighting terrorists and insurgents is to blow things up. But one of the most cost-effective counterterrorism methods in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan may be to build things up, like schooling and microfinance. Girls’ education sometimes gets more bang for the buck than a missile.

A new study from the RAND Corporation examined how 648 terror groups around the world ended between 1968 and 2006. It found that by far the most common way for them to disappear was to be absorbed by the political process. The second most common way was to be defeated by police work. In contrast, in only 7 percent of cases did military force destroy the terrorist group.

I absolutely concur with Segura and Kristof that it is time to refocus efforts on aid, reconstruction, and negotiations, as I would concur with the Rand study (and some past presidential candidates) that fighting terrorists is best done by fighting crime rather than fighting wars. And, while I am not entirely ready to pass judgment on a complete withdrawal of every NATO body from Afghanistan, I would like to again go on record and restate that I thoroughly opposed the original invasion in 2001. At the time, it was instantly apparent to me—a person that witnessed the World Trade Center attacks and aftermath at close range—that the Bush Administration’s efforts (for lack of a better term) with regard to Afghanistan were all about revenge, domestic politics, and personal face-saving—and nothing else—and it amazed then (as it still does) that so many of my compatriots on this side of the political spectrum somehow thought this particular Bush war to be appropriate or well-considered.

As history has proven, the Bush Administration had no interest in the imminent threat posed by Osama bin Laden back in the spring and summer of 2001—just ask Richard Clarke. What’s more, as was very apparent at the time, the White House had little serious interest in unseating the Taliban prior to 9/11/01. The political and religious repression didn’t trigger action; nor did the misogyny. The shelling of the Buddhas of Bammiyan inspired as much of a response from Washington as did the bombing of the USS Cole—that is to say, none. In fact, soon after the Buddhas were destroyed, the Bush Administration sent $43 million to the Taliban for what was billed as “poppy eradication.”

Both prior to and after the attacks of September 11, the Taliban approached the US with offers to handover bin Laden—either directly or to a third-party country. Between mid-September of 2001 and the start of the bombing of Afghanistan, Taliban spokesmen made attempts to open negotiations with the US—offering to alternately give up the al Qaeda leader if there was “proof” that he planned the 9/11 hijackings, or turn bin Laden over to a third country pending investigation—only to be dismissed without consideration by a Bush Administration hot for a hot war.

None of this is meant to discount the horrors of life under Taliban rule for the peoples of Afghanistan. I was very distraught prior to 9/11/01 that the US wasn’t doing more—with regards to diplomacy, sanctions, and pressure on allies—to dislodge the mullahs. But if you want to argue that it would have been somehow morally repugnant to negotiate with the Taliban in 2001, I would ask what you propose to do about stanching a resurgent Taliban today.

Kristof again:

“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” the [Rand] report declares. “Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended.”

The next president should absorb that lesson and revalidate diplomacy as the primary tool of foreign policy — even if that means talking to ogres.

That last point sounds like an endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama—and it very well may be—but Obama has also made it a point to advocate for an increased military presence in Afghanistan. While that might sound politically palatable and imminently pragmatic, it could well turn out to be counterproductive. It will be hard for any US leader, even one as naturally tactful as Obama, to maximize diplomatic efforts while still accepting the ineffective “war on terror” frame. Our next president should wholly embrace a proactive strategy of negotiated security instead of indulging in the reactive tactics of mechanized war.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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