With the agreement by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to convene the recently elected parliament, a growing crisis appears to have been averted. As important as this decision is in the short term, however, it will not settle the larger question of whether we can win the war.
Ask this question and you can expect three basic answers. A host of critics will try to convince you that the war can’t be won. Advocates will insist that this is a war we can and must win. Then there are those Americans caught in the middle, fearing the worst but uncertain of how to proceed.
Strong debate is crucial to the health of a democracy such as ours, of course, but this debate has gone on interminably and it appears to have contributed little to the war effort. The problem is that the debate is focused on the conditions on the ground, a complicated question given that the “the ground” covers a large and varying terrain and that conditions are often in a state of flux.
Even if we were able to answer this question with some sense of certainty, it is not the most important question. The decisive question is not can we win, but will the Afghanis fight.
To see the limits of the current debate, we need look no further than the Obama administration’s recently released review. It takes up the debate over the status of conditions on the ground, framing the issue as one of whether we are turning the momentum against the Taliban and thereby winning the trust of the people.
Building trust requires time, especially in a culture weary of war and foreign intervention. The reality is that time is almost always on the side of local insurgents, especially when they enjoy a nearby safe haven, as the Taliban does in Pakistan.
In this situation, the locals’ leeriness toward the coalition is strongly informed by what amounts to fear and, in some cases, terror. The reality is that building trust is a much tougher challenge than instilling fear. In Afghanistan it may well be that fear is simply too pervasive for trust to emerge on a large scale.
We may continue to debate this point, but such a debate is shortsighted. To see just how shortsighted, imagine that the locals come to trust us (and our allies) and that the Taliban are then driven into hiding. What then? For how long would peace last?
The common assumption is that the Taliban are so deeply unpopular that they will be strongly resisted, but this should be of little comfort because, as noted, a small number of the Taliban are capable of undermining the work of large numbers of coalition forces.
Counterinsurgency and a lasting peace require not merely that the locals trust coalition forces, but that they share a common loyalty that unites and inspires them. People are willing to fight and die in defense of an identity or an ideology, meaning ideas or values.
In Iraq, for example, the competing identities of the Shia and Sunni have generated much of the continuing conflict, and the challenge has been to bring about some form of reconciliation or compromise between these two groups.
The situation in Afghanistan is different. Ethnic identity is a factor there too, but ideology is the leading source of conflict. It is the ideology of the Taliban that inspires their war against their fellow Pasthuns, including President Karzai.
So what is the ideology of the Afghani government forces?
The conventional answer is a stable and democratic Afghanistan at peace with its neighbors. Democracy, in other words, is the cause for which Afghanis are said to defend their government, but this hardly seems realistic. To begin with, the last two elections were marred by deep and widespread corruption.
Moreover, there is little evidence that the villagers of Afghanistan are deeply dedicated to the ideals of a democracy. It might be countered that the traditional decision-making process of Afghani culture, with its emphasis on consensus building, is akin to democratic governance. However, tribal councils dominated by elders are a long way from the norms and practices typically associated with democracy. Indeed, the Taliban themselves have made great use of such councils.
The more likely source of ideological loyalty is not love of democracy, but simply opposition to the Taliban and their extremist interpretation of Islam that focuses on dress, behavior and ritual, and sees foreign troops as infidels.
The Taliban represent a threat not only to democratic government but also to some of the traditional Afghani ways of life, both to reform-minded Afghanis in Kabul and traditionalists living in the countryside. Reformers and traditionalists alike value, at least to some degree, the idea of greater personal freedom: the freedom to send a daughter to school, shave a beard or purchase a television. It has not included, however, the freedom to change religions, a right central to democratic ideology.
In fact our many years in Afghanistan give us little hope of success in any conventional sense. If the people’s loyalty has not been established by now, what reason do we have to expect it will soon develop?
Even if we turned the tide, the issue remains one of determining what the Afghanis will do once we have left and the Taliban have returned. To think they won’t return is to fail to understand their ideological zeal, tactical flexibility and proximity to Pakistani safe havens.
We have little reason to think that the people of Afghanistan would, in the face of the Taliban’s resurgence, feel that preserving the Afghani government is worth risking their lives.
To pretend otherwise is simply folly.
David True is associate professor of religion at Wilson College, where he teaches courses in religion and ethics. He co-edits the journal Political Theology and regularly blogs at Tea Leaves.