Phil-osophically Speaking: February 20, 2014


Two Minutes Before Midnight

On the morning of February 14, the U.S received a Valentine from President Karzai of Afghanistan when the gates of the Bagram prison swung open and 65 men with grizzled beards and blood-soaked hands were let out to breathe the fresh air of freedom. These prisoners were not some disgruntled Episcopalians, but Jihad fighters directly linked to attacks killing or wounding U.S. and Afghan security personnel.

No wonder Americans are looking at the Afghan situation as a Sisyphean nightmare. President Karzai of Afghanistan, who the U.S. supported and funded, is veering inexorably toward the Taliban. America’s options seem a lot like the man who went to see his clergyman for advice and was told that two roads lay before him—“one that went straight to hell” and the other that led “right to damnation.”

That may well be the upshot of either keeping our troops in Afghanistan or withdrawing them altogether. President Karzai, whose term expires this year, refuses to sign a long-term security agreement to keep American troops in Afghanistan past 2014. While a great many Americans hope for a complete troop withdrawal, I cannot count myself among them.

To leave Afghanistan is to turn the country over to the Taliban. This makes as much sense as allowing Germany to militarize the Rhineland in the 1930s. The reason we invaded Afghanistan was to root out those mass murderers who, with cold-blooded depravity, killed nearly 3,000 Americans in two great cities and in a remote countryside in Pennsylvania. The thought of giving back the country to that same theocratic, homicidal sect who wants to slaughter still more Americans is intolerable.

There are two ways to deal with the Afghan menace. The first is to integrate these radical elements into a civilized political regimen, a task that is now and probably always was impossible. The second is to isolate and disable the Taliban so that it can’t spread terror. Yes, this strategy puts American soldiers in peril and yes it taxes our treasury. But what’s the alternative? Withdrawing our forces is outright surrender. It turns the clock back to two minutes before midnight on Sept. 10, 2001. It would be the action of a nation that deserves nothing but contempt and contempt is what it will reap. Restoring the Taliban to its former strength and within the very nest where the egg of iniquity was first laid is the height of folly.

Moreover, it’s immoral to engage in such a myopic and pusillanimous foreign policy. Have we been deluded into believing that exorcising the American military in Afghanistan will result in the Taliban becoming a benevolent neutral? In the words of the WWII historian Sebastian Haffner, used in another context, such an abdication will have the U.S. looking at the Taliban like a rabbit looks at a snake. It’s true, as Oliver Cromwell once remarked, that one does not really possess what one possesses by force. But it’s not possession that we should desire, its deterrence.

What we can’t accomplish by education and assimilation, we must then do by partition or strategic occupation.

Continued American involvement in Afghanistan is one I don’t relish thinking about, but to deny its necessity is to deny reality. Passivity is the flatterer of provocation; withdrawal a messenger of defeat. We must find the power to face terrible facts. One terrible fact is that global terror remains a catalytic force in radical Islam and that its virulent strain is political and imperial. Otto Von Bismarck, the great German statesman, warned the community of nations that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of the fear of death.” That’s a formulation worth contemplating; but the die of bearing arms was cast long ago, under the shadow of the smoldering ruins in lower Manhattan. Who would now, even at this distance, retroactively rebuke America for waging war?

The good news, if I could use that doubtful phrase, is we don’t need to marshal the same forces and resources we had previously. A member of the English Parliament, speaking about the unrest in Cypress, phrased an alternative to his government that we can apply to our current situation: Do we want Afghanistan as a base or do we want a base in Afghanistan? My answer is that we want several bases, fortified by air cover. We might not be able to control all of Afghanistan but those areas surrounding it would serve as a refuge to those fleeing Taliban controlled areas and as a safety net to contracept threats within the country and those they might otherwise hatch abroad.

Our struggle against the Taliban is a civilizational one and global in its dimensions. With Syria falling apart, we must realize the pathetic incommensurability between meeting our responsibilities of a world power and that of a nation in retreat. We cannot hide from this fight, for it will be sure to find us and for the worse if we shirk from the challenge now.   

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