I think Reihan is right to be distressed, given his inclinations for Afghanistan, by the perceptible shift in expectations for the country. And he’s right to note that it’s a major shift with some significant policy consequences for Afghanistan and the United States. I wouldn’t, personally, call our goals or strategies modest. I don’t think any part of a mission that has at times included invasion by force and the remaking of a society in a purportedly democratic image can reasonably be called modest. Within the context of our American politics, though, and given the recent history of what we thought we might accomplish in the country, he’s right to identify a major drawdown in ambition.
My question for Reihan is what aspect of Afghanistan’s history or culture leads him to believe the kind of situation he has envisioned is possible for the country. He writes
building some kind of broadly representative government is an important part of the process, not out of messianic zeal but rather out of a recognition that a government effective enough to police its borders–and you need to do that to stamp out security camps– has to be seen as basically legitimate.
I just don’t see how that jibes with Afghanistan’s history. Romantics aside, monarchy is just another kind of dictatorship, and the periods of greatest stability in Afghanistan’s history have been periods under the rule of monarchs, and those in which Afghanistan was under unapologetic imperial control. Even in those situations, there was tribal violence and areas of lawlessness within the Afghani borders; indeed, disputed zones and areas not firmly under the control of any government in Afghanistan predate, among other things, this country, Christianity, and the English language. Those are the kinds of conditions in which terrorist cells and training camps could hide out easily, or so it seems to me.
Of course, Reihan is right– preventing those kinds of terrorist training camps is our mission, so my pessimism isn’t directed at him or those who are more inclined to his vision for the country. But I do think his association with democratic legitimacy with stable governance is telling. I don’t think that is true. Then again, that’s a much larger debate. In the meantime, Reihan has a point about the modesty of our current goals in Afghanistan and the problems that creates. But I wonder if maybe the alternative is one he likes even less.