Today a colleague of mine asked me whether we really can put Afghanistan in historical perspective yet. We have, he said, a new story on Iraq--it was a mistake to go in, we botched it up initially, but starting in 2007 we managed to make it work fairly well and now we're leaving--but Afghanistan is more confusing. What did I think? It set me thinking.
The Bush Administration--as I think I pointed out in my very first post here in the fall of 2004--was never very interested in Afghanistan itself. Instead, it created the Bush dcotrine--that the Taliban, which had sheltered Al Queda, had to be brought down as well as Al Queda itself--to introduce a whole new foreign policy that would lead to the invasion and conquest of both Iraq and Iran, as well. Donald Rumsfeld also saw Afghanistan, which had no modern military forces, as a laboratory for new, capital-intensive forms of warfare. Within months, the Taliban had been swept away--but the Administration had bigger things on its mind. General Franks was already ordered to plan Iraq while the first Afghan war was in progress. And I am increasingly convinced that the Bush Administration hardly cared about Al Queda, except as an excuse, at all. They could not find and kill Osama Bin Laden in seven and a half years, while Barack Obama took only two and a half. As I understand it, Bin Laden had been in his last home for roughly the last half of the Bush Administration. I am not sure that I will live to read the full story of how we located him--it may take 30 years or more to come out.
The initial invasion of Afghanistan nonetheless drove the Taliban out, and by 2005 or so level-headed American observers, including one who used to share my office, were convinced that it was gone for good. But it was reconstituting itself in Pakistan. Barack Obama entered office while the situation was deteriorating, and he had already argued that we had neglected Afghanistan in favor of Iraq. So protecting the Karzai regime from the Taliban became his goal as well. We have cleared some key areas of Taliban for the moment--just as we cleared some areas of South Vietnam of Viet Cong in 1969-71--but whether the Afghans can build a lasting foundation there remains to be seen.
The Bush Administration was, in one sense, right: Afghanistan is a remote, poor country with almost no geopolitical significance. Perhaps after Bin Laden escaped we needed some bases there to find and kill him, but the Taliban has never had broader political ambitions. The real question at stake was the political future of the Muslim world. The Bush Administration was determined, first, to show that in the post cold war world there was no room for well-armed, medium size states that had shown a willingness to act against American interests by force. They eliminated Ba'athist Iraq but could never move on to Iran. Secondly, at least some of them, including Bush himself, thought they could start the Arab world down the path to democracy. That, now, has happened too--but with results very different from what Bush had in mind.
The Egyptian elections gave two Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, well over half the votes. Something similar has happened in Tunisia. The Egyptian brotherhood has announced that it opposes, for now at least, a coalition with the Salafists. But the significance of these developments remains enormous. A clash of civilizations looms on the horizon, because the momentum of western civilization has been halted, and then reversed, in the last half century. One hundred years ago there seemed to be no alternative to copying the west, even in the Muslim world. Even the alternatives to liberal democracy such as Communism and Fascism were clearly offshoots of the western rationalist tradition. Now all that is changed, changed utterly. Turkey, the big outpost of westernization in the region, has become much more religious and its long-time alliance with Israel is in tatters. The Egyptian colonels' regime that ruled for about 55 years is giving way to Muslim democracy. Hezbollah has become enormously influential in Lebanon and Hamas is probably the true representative of the Palestinians. But we should not be surprised. Western civilization has been under attack from the left and the right here in the United States. And Israel, founded as a socialist democracy, is tending more towards theocracy every year. A clash of civilizations looms because the hegemony of western civilization is now a thing of the past.
Israel was created by secularists in the wake of the Second World War, when no one imagined what a role religion would play in the lives of those not yet born. It dreamed, apparently, of a relatively secular Middle East in which it could co-exist with its neighbors. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the negotiations with the Palestinians in the 1990s seemed to offer hope that this was possible--but it looks much less likely now. As the New York Times courageously reported last weekend, the settler movement now has a new goal: the ethnic cleansing of Arab neighborhoods within Israel. If Egypt and even Turkey become avowed enemies again Israel will face very serious threats--and there is also the question of the Iranian nuclear program. As an American, I am concerned that renewed conflict could draw the US into a major regional war. In my opinion, it should not.
I think that in another 50 years Afghanistan will be something of a footnote to history, rather like the anarchist movements of the first half of the twentieth century, which faded into insignificance after the advent of Communism. The 21st century equivalent of the Communist challenge will be the advent of new Islamist regimes. It may be much less serious, it may require a completely different kind of response--but it is real. The events of 1979-81--the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the Iranian revolution, and the assassination of Anwar Sadat--pointed in the direction things were going. They have a long way to go yet.