Jacob Heilbrunn

The Myth of Rebuilding Afghanistan

The report of Senate Democrats about the failure of nation-building in Afghanistan is no surprise at all. At least to anyone who has occasionally looked at the front pages, or home pages, of a daily newspaper in the past few years. The billions that the Bush and Obama administration distributed to Afghanistan have mostly been wasted or feathered the pockets of local officials. What else is new?

The so-called Performance-Based Governors Fund, for example, is apparently distorting local economies, overwhelming them with cash and inadvertently fostering corruption. Wars lead to corruption and Afghanistan was corrupt before America ever entered it. The grim saga of America's intervention into Afghanistan goes back to the 1970s, of course, when Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, had the bright idea of providing Afghan rebels with stinger missiles and the like to extrude the Soviet Union from that forbidding landscape. It worked. Up to a point. Then the mujh, as they were known, began to aim their Enfield rifles and more at their quondam benefactor.

In today's Washington Post, Henry Kissinger calls for a negotiated political settlement. Any agreement is likely to amount to a face-saving one, as America seeks to extricate itself from the morass. But whether Obama can fully pull out is questionable. A reserve force will probably have to be left behind to prevent the country from completely collapsing or reverting to Taliban rule.

For his part, Obama has carefully kept his defined aims in Afghanistan quite limited. He's never talked about turning it into a shining democracy. Instead, he's insulated himself from criticism on the right by ramping up the number of troops serving in the area as the prelude to downsizing the war effort. His strategy may work—in America. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Rep. Walter B. Jones, previously regarded as a heretic by many Republicans for his opposition to the Iraq War, is gaining new respectability in conservative circles for his opposition to big government spending on Afghanistan. The only Republican candidate who has unequivocally endorsed the war is former Sen. Rick Santorum. As the Daily Caller observed,

 

there’s a growing anti-war trend in the GOP base that might tip primary votes away from candidates that vociferously champion the Afghan campaign. That trend surfaced last month when 26 House Republicans voted for a measure that would accelerate troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

But if Afghanistan devolves into chaos in 2012, then Obama's campaign for the presidency will as well. After ten years and billions, Afghanistan continues to bedevil America. And that's not changing any time soon.