Protests in Afghanistan: Our Excuse to Get Out

General David Petraeus, the head of American forces in Afghanistan, has emphasized the importance of winning the "hearts and minds" of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. Pentagon officials may want to reexamine that assumption, but not for the reason you might think.

Evangelical pastor Terry Jones, author of the book Islam Is of the Devil and head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, two weeks ago carried through on his promise to "stand up" to Islam and burn a Quran. In response, crowds demonstrated in cities across Afghanistan, with a mob in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif storming a United Nations compound, killing eight non-American aid workers and beheading two of them.

The message from the protests is clear: This is war. Nevertheless, moral ambiguities emerge. When backed by over 130,000 International Security Assistance Force troops and close to 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces operating under foreign command, how are civilian aid workers being perceived by local Afghans? In the minds of the protesters, what crimes were they committing if they genuinely believed that they were defending their religious traditions and customs from infidels occupying their country? None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent aid workers was justified. If anything, they epitomize the war in Afghanistan's two major problems.

First, they illustrate the discrepancy between the war of perceptions being waged abroad and the fearsome "Islamic menace" that our elected leaders continue to exploit back at home. Second, and perhaps more important, these incidents demonstrate the danger of America trying to forcibly export its liberal values onto illiberal societies.

U.S. policymakers have long believed that people around the world both want to adopt America's liberal values, institutions, and practices, and that they should embrace them because those values embody the most enlightened and most civilized way of thinking. This universalist belief was aptly summarized by President George W. Bush in his 2002 West Point speech: "Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place... When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations."

This way of thinking is profoundly flawed. The notion that moral truths should be singularly interpreted implicitly denies the differences between cultures. As prominent political science scholar Kenneth Waltz writes: "The powerful state may, and the United States does, think of itself as acting for the sake of peace, justice, and well-being in the world. But these terms will be defined to the liking of the powerful, which may conflict with the preferences and the interests of others."

To argue that moral truths and values are the same in every culture allows policymakers to avoid serious questions about the consequences of intervention, including the inherent constraints of operating within a foreign culture. Even simple issues like the burqa -- a billowy garment that covers a woman from head to toe -- are still misunderstood in America. Whatever one thinks about the burqa (a symbol of oppression, institutionalized intolerance, etc.), it is more than a mere item of clothing; it reflects the ultra-conservative societal norms in which Afghan women live, many of whom do not have the freedom to look and act however they want.

Many well-meaning Americans believe that the United States, with its commitment to individual rights, political and religious freedom, and the rule of law, has a unique role to play in advancing Afghan human rights. But the freedom Americans champion also entails one's freedom to dissent. Does the West have the moral authority to punish Afghan traditionalists who reject our imposition of social transformation? What happens when attempts to reshape Afghan customs and belief systems incite violent rebellions, as they recently did in Mazar?

Recent events in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call to how our 10-year occupation is actually being perceived. Rather than winning "hearts and minds," America's civilizing mission has become increasingly associated with a Western cultural invasion.

Cross-posted from Cato@Liberty.