Our Honorable Engagement in Afghanistan

I’m doubling back to a subject that occupied me a week ago when I was in New Orleans.  At the airport on the way, I bought three magazines.  Almost only two, because I couldn’t look at the cover of one without physical revulsion.  The purchase required an extra cognitive step – I will buy this magazine because it’s exactly the kind of journalism I most admire.

I’m speaking of the cover of Time magazine.

She is Aisha, 18 years old, and victim of relentless domestic abuse.  She ran away.  She was caught.  For fleeing, the Taliban sentenced her to having her nose and ears cut off.  Her brother-in-law held her down.  Her husband did the deed.  They left her for dead.

Aisha agreed to permit her disfigured portrait on the cover of Time, despite the danger to her from such a high profile, because “she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan.”

In the aggregate, there is more Muslim courage in this world than courage of any other type.

No other religion currently confronts a civil war for its soul.  That is one reason we fight.  The finest thing our nation can do, the thing that will make our great-great grandchildren proud of us, is to side with history, to side with Muslim courage in the teeth of tyrannical abomination.

I try very hard to see the other side, the reflexive rejection of war, of any projection of American power.  I sift through my best baby-boomer sympathies:

1. “Give peace a chance.”  Check.  Did that.  Then, 9-11, and a dozen other terrorist atrocities that slaughtered innocents, and a hundred thousand additional atrocities that cost innocents their noses, ears, limbs, and lives.  And by the way, giving peace, capitulation, and accommodation a chance got America described by an emboldened Osama bin Laden as a “paper tiger.”

2. Quaker sign near my house: “War is not the answer.”  I agree when the question is what’s a fun thing to do when you’re bored.  If the question is what are your options when an ideology of aggressive hatred inspires its adherents to kill your children, and to brutalize any people over whom they acquire power – then war may be an answer.

There will be a day when the gravest evils we have perpetrated as a species are vanquished.  We are not there.  We haven’t even managed to vanquish genocide.  What makes anyone believe our species is sufficiently civilized to take war off the table?

3. “We’re hypocrites because we permit tyranny some places but not others.”  This is the formula for Western paralysis and slow capitulation to the more determined.  It is flawed logically, morally, and strategically.

That we cannot achieve every possible good does not disqualify us from pursuit of some good.  The fact that we cannot, or choose not to, save sufferers in Syrian, North Korean, Iranian, or Somalian jails and killing fields, does not mean we cannot strive to save the next Aisha from the brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  No force for good ever achieved total good.  It is sufficient that a force for good advances some good; it is sufficient that some standard-bearer for good persists in the field.

The reflexive and categorical rejection of war – or the predictable and precipitous withdrawal from its unpleasantness – is the strategic equivalent of playing poker with only your cards face up.  If enemies without our democratic transparencies can reliably predict our distaste for military confrontation, then our massive military superiority on paper is indeed no more than bin Laden’s “paper tiger.”

Essential to America’s projection of soft power is America’s capable exercise of hard power.  Sun Tzu in The Art of War: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”  It sounds like a celebration of pacifism, but commends the opposite.  Sun Tzu further: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Subduing the enemy without fighting, therefore, requires keeping deception in your arsenal – declining to play poker with only your cards face up – which means not being predictably pacifist.  Predictable pacifism emboldens enemies, who become comfortably ugly in their ambitions, and then must either be fought on the battlefield, or permitted their conquests, or most ignobly, both.  Conversely, the enemies’ perception that you might commit your blood and treasure to fighting their predatory ambition could deter them from ever pursuing their ambition.  And that is Sun Tzu’s subduing the enemy without fighting, the acme of skill – which requires our unpredictable willingness to use hard power.

Whatever else one believes about George W. Bush’s presidency, he responded with remarkable courage at a decisive moment in American political, military, and diplomatic history.  With fatalistic grumbling from virtually every institutional corner in America about the Iraq war, including the military itself, his own political party, and certainly the media, George Bush announced the opposite of prevailing conventional wisdom.  He was brilliantly unpredictable.  We would not shrink away, we would not concede that all foreign wars must end like Vietnam; instead, we would power up and commit to the victory.  It worked exactly as Sun Tzu would have predicted.  The Iraq surge is an historic contribution to American military capability and, derivatively, American diplomatic capability.

The war in Afghanistan requires just such a courageous reckoning.  What was once the bipartisan “good war” has become wearisome, a war without a steady victory trajectory (surprise) and therefore, being “a war,” something to jettison (for the sake of the troops of course).  That would be horribly mistaken.

Like most folks from states that were part of the Confederacy, I am uneasy with General William Tecumseh Sherman.  The deliberate devastation he wrought – what surely seemed at the time gratuitous destruction and mayhem, including many non-military targets – makes him, still, in some parts of the South, the most hated man ever.  Yet I am constrained to say, General Sherman did exactly what was necessary.  He resolutely crushed the enemy, and brought the Civil War to a swifter end.

Permit the enemy no illusion of residual power.  If we believe we are right vis-à-vis the Taliban – as the Union believed it was right vis-à-vis the South and the Allied powers in World War 2 believed they were right vis-à-vis the Axis powers (hence resolving to accept nothing short of unconditional surrender), then the Taliban must be crushed.  And that must be our unrelenting and righteous resolve.

To give them negotiating latitude, to dignify the thugs with ceremonial second thoughts, would guarantee a surge of unspeakable brutality against mostly women and children, and any men with the courage to protest.

Are we right vis-à-vis the Taliban?

Aisha is not an outlier exception.  The Taliban has long made a sport of torturing and killing women.  According to a United Nations report, the Taliban is currently responsible for 76% of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan – and women and children are bearing the brunt of the Taliban slaughter.  In its desperation, the Taliban recently announced open killing season on any civilians who cooperate with the Afghan government or coalition forces.

Not content merely to execute a pregnant woman recently accused of adultery, the Taliban subjected her first to brutal lashes, and then put a bullet in her head.  A medical team – eight Americans, a German, a Briton, and two Afghans –who devoted their lives to the kind of sight-saving eye-care that indigent Afghans would never otherwise receive – were slaughtered, and a Taliban spokesman proudly took credit.  “They were Christian missionaries [which was false], and we killed them all.”

We are right vis-à-vis the Taliban.  We are honorable to fight them, we are on the right side of history and Muslim courage, and we must finish the fight convincingly.

UPDATE 2-11-2011: The photo above on the cover of Time magazine won the World Press Photo award for 2010.

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