A Little More Conversation Is Key for Afghanistan

Even as the bulk of foreign policy attention stays fixed on events in Gaza, a real debate is beginning to open up over the Obama administration's plans to tackle the Afghanistan problem.  Bob Herbert and Russ Feingold have registered their skepticism about U.S. plans for the region and a new entrant to the discussion, a group called Get Afghanistan Right, which opposes "military escalation in Afghanistan" and supports "non-military solutions to the conflict," just launched yesterday.  Spencer looked at Get Afghanistan Right's genesis yesterday, in a post that drew out a lot of the broader complexities which have so far characterized progressive conversations about Afghanistan. 

Spencer is right, that the general ambivalence, skepticism, even flat-out opposition is understandable, in part because the strategy for Afghanistan is not yet known, and also because progressive arguments for reprioritizing Afghanistan have been linked rather closely to the debate about Iraq, which is itself a notable conversation, both in terms of the diversity of views expressed, and its political salience.  Moving forward, as progressives continue to discuss the merits and pitfalls of greater U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (and the broader region), it's going to be important to identify a few shared parameters for the discussion, partially to defend against conservatives trying to turn the issue into a fifth column, and critically, so that everyone gets the full benefit of one another's views as the Obama administration develops its policy.  There's no guarantee that a vigorous exchange will result in the best policy, but a replay of the early days of the Iraq debate, which was marked by acquiescence, stifled conversations, and bitter disagreements, is in no one's interest. 

So as the conversations pick up, I thought I'd throw out a possible guide posts to act as common principles.  These are by no means definitive, but I do think they're a useful starting point.

1) Embrace the debate.  Regardless of how progressives feel about Afghanistan, there is at least broad agreement that U.S. needs to have some kind of strategy before significantly altering our footprint there.  Yet what is clear from today's Karen DeYoung piece is that the next administration's plan for the region is at this point either unknown or unfinished.  This makes it all the more important to have an honest exchange about options and limitations, opportunities and drawbacks, as well as overall U.S. objectives for the region - because these discussions can still have influence, now, before the policy is set.  To paraphrase from future Secretary of State Clinton's remarks before SFRC yesterday, asking the right questions, and raising the red flags is exactly what progressives should be doing when it comes to Afghanistan.

2) Recognize that policy and political dimensions are linked.  It's true that progressives have benefited from using Afghanistan as a political cudgel, but that's not to say that there hasn't been serious policy heft behind these arguments.  Outfits like NSN, and the Center for American Progress have done a lot to bring attention to this Afghanistan's many wrinkles, while also speaking and writing about it in terms that people besides South Asia wonks can find useful.  The truth is that the policy and political dimensions of these discussions are interwoven.  Even the most committed members of the peace movement are going to have a tough time with the Afghanistan-Pakistan region's distinction as a nexus for terrorism and nuclear proliferation concerns, just as it would be irresponsible for war-planners to forge ahead blindly, without considering how Iraq war exhaustion and a global financial crisis will constrain any U.S. policy, be it sweeping or more modest. 

3) Move beyond the focus on troops.  So far, most of the press focus on Afghanistan has been related to troop numbers, in part because of the announcement that as many as 30,000 troops will deploy to the country, and also because for the past year, Afghanistan's security has steadily deteriorated, making 2008 the most violent year on record.  But it's also the case that troops and security are just facets of a broader of problem.  Afghanistan suffers from lapsed reconstruction, a pitiful level of development, widespread corruption, and meddling from all its surrounding countries. As it stands, the opium trade alone - a shadow industry run by warlords, with ties to the insurgency - is enough to give the U.S. fits for some time to come.  Progressives of all stripes have devoted time and attention to these issues - the trick will be translating that work into a conversation that reflects the whole range of obstacles contained within the Afghanistan problem. 

Talking about Afghanistan being a "good war" is a conservative frame, and unhelpful in many ways. However, it was an attempt to point to the fact that that like it or not, Obama's campaign promises have turned it into the foreign policy issue by which liberals will be judged.  Getting it right, whether that means a responsible withdraw or a sustained engagement, carries immense ramifications for how progressives are perceived when it comes to foreign policy.  This reality, cruel though it may be, necessitates strong participation from all parts of the progressive community.