In the Arena

McGovern on Afghanistan

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George McGovern was a world war II hero, a principled politician and absolutely right about the foolishness of the war in Vietnam. He is thoroughly wrong about Afghanistan, though. As President Obama painstakingly explained in his West Point speech, Vietnam is a false–indeed, a facile–anology. The war in Vietnam was based on lies–the Tonkin Gulf incident–and a false premise, the notion that Vietnam would be the next domino to fall in a communist campaign to conquer Asia. (The total wrongness of this theory was soon demonstrated by the China-Soviet split and subsequent, tacit U.S.-China alliance against the Soviets–as well as a thousand years of tension between the Vietnamese and the Chinese.)

Afghanistan is different. There are familiar arguments about why this is so–we invaded them because they allowed Al Qaeda safe havens to plan attacks on us, for example. It can also be argued that while the Viet Minh were a national liberation army with broad popular support, the Taliban represent only one Afghan ethnic faction, the Pashtuns, and they are not very popular even among their own people. But some of the best arguments about why this war is necessary must go unspoken by the President. They involve Pakistan and India. Let me lay them out briefly:

Let’s start with a fact: the Indian Embassy in Kabul has suffered major, lethal bomb attacks twice in the past two years. There is little question in the intelligence community that these attacks were staged by terrorist allies of the Pakistani Army. The Pakistanis are absolutely convinced that if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, India will jump in, supporting the non-Pashtun elements in the country–indeed, India was a supporter of the Northern Alliance’s guerrilla war against the Taliban in the 1990s (although, it must be said, the Pakistanis have a rather exaggerated sense of Indian involvement).

Why is this a problem we should care about? Because India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons. Because tensions between the two countries would escalate dramatically if we were to abandon the region. And, most important, because our departure would empower the more radical elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services–not merely in their support of the Taliban, but also, potentially, in their ability to stage an Islamist coup d’etat. This is the worst scenario imaginable: a nuclear Pakistan, with allies of Osama Bin Laden controlling the trigger. (Nor would this be the first Islamist coup: Zia al-Haq staged one in the late 1970s, which we supported–against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.)

Far-fetched? Well, it’s certainly a worst case scenario–but it’s far more plausible than the domino theory that led us into Vietnam. Our continued presence in Afghanistan gives the civilian government in Pakistan space and time to build some institutions, like a non-corrupt judiciary and an non-religious education system, if it can. (Yes, a big if.) After the Musharraf dictatorship, the notion of yet another military coup is very unpopular with the general population–a sentiment that can be built upon now, especially with the $7.5 billion infusion of U.S. economic and humanitarian aid. The stronger the civilian government, the less likely a military coup. (Another big if: as long as the civilian government is led by Asif Ali Zardari, held in almost universal low regard by Pakistanis, the chances of a credible central government remain crippled–but Zardari is gradually moving toward a power-sharing arrangement with other civilian factions.)

More directly, a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan means that the Pakistani military will low-ball its support for the Afghan Taliban, as it is sort of doing now. If we left, the Pakistani Army would augment its support for the Taliban, in the hopes that it could resume control of the Kabul government. A U.S. military presence also gives the Karzai government–laughably corrupt as it is–a last chance to get its act together. We should know within the next year if that is happening.

Finally, a U.S. military presence in the region gives strength, and credibility, to the most important work that needs to be done–the diplomatic efforts to lower the temperature between Pakistan and India. This has to be the unstated, opaque priority of the coming months. Several years ago, the Indians and Pakistanis came close to a deal on Kashmir. We need to nudge them back to that agreement; we also need to convince both sides that the commercial benefits of better relations far outweigh the false sense of security that attends the constant state of tension that exists now.

There is no guarantee that any of this will work. Indeed, there is a very good chance that it will not. But this is a situation that carries huge national security implications for the United States, in a way that Vietnam (and Iraq, for that matter) never did. McGovern’s reflexive antiwar arguments, which clearly lack a detailed understanding of the situation–or the efforts by the U.S. troops to limit civilian casualties and provide security, and social services, for the population–simply aren’t very credible.

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