In his Idealism Without Illusion column, World Affairs writer Alan Johnson discusses David Miliband and Exit Strategy Fetishism - a problem that applies keenly in Afghanistan:
Miliband was formed politically by Tony Blair’s New Labour project. So a “can-do” spirit infuses the speech. (One can imagine an “Afghan Delivery Unit” being set up to “audit” the progress towards the “targets.”) However, the Achilles’ heel of New Labour was its tendency to bracket evidence and construct hopeful scenarios atop of false premises, wishful thinking, hypothetical and nearly-impossible-to-imagine serendipities, and wholly unexamined assumptions. (Gordon Brown for example, promised to “end boom and bust” while Defense Secretary John Reid speculated when UK troops went into Afghanistan that they may not have to fire a bullet...)
Here are three words not mentioned in Miliband’s New York Times op-ed:
(1) Iran. As 2014 looms, there is a rising Khomeinist influence in Afghanistan. Follow the money and you find Iran has been buying influence since 2003 by sending sacks of cash to Karzai (as well as arming the Taliban to keep NATO off balance). And Iran knows the West is heading for the exit doors. Yet Miliband is confident a “process” can persuade Tehran to become a responsible partner in a regional compact. Before Christmas.
(2) Jihadism. Miliband talks as if a Taliban version of the IRA’s Martin McGuinness is about to agree to power sharing. This is impossible. First, the IRA had limited secular goals. Second, McGuinness and the IRA had been defeated on the battlefield. Only when he was the leader of an infiltrated, demoralised, and defeated military force did McGuinness ring the British government to say “the war is over but we need your help to bring us in.” In sharp contrast, George Packer writing in the New Yorker about Afghanistan has pointed out that “the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.”
As for the Pakistan Taliban, they look more like al-Qaeda with each passing month. On April 3rd, they attacked the 13th-century Sakhi Sarwar shrine, near the southern Punjabi town of Dera Ghazi Khan, slaughtering 50 people. Deobandis slaughtering—as they would see it—“blaspheming Barelvi heretics.” They routinely kill Shiites at their shrines. And they massacred 93 Ahmedis in Lahore. Miliband’s claim that the Taliban are just a very “conservative” strand of Islamic thought is too sanguine by half.
(3) Victory. Terry Glavin, research coordinator of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, and one of the most astute commentators on the country, argues that exit-strategy fetishism is changing every calculation on the ground for the worse. It is pushing Karzai and his Popolzai cronies toward the Khomeinists, demoralizing the democrats (why take a risk if the Taliban are on their way back?), encouraging corruption (why not get what you can while you can?), and deepening antiwar feeling in the West (why should our young men die if “their killers are being wooed to come back to their comfy cushions in Kabul”?).
It is right to try to win over groups of Taliban fighters, of course. Glavin points out that Canada’s Task Force in Panjwaii has done this successfully with the tough message “Reintegrate or Die.” Many Taliban grunts are “illiterate and lumpen ruffians from the backcountry of the Pashtun belt who don’t know who they’re fighting against or what they’re fighting for.”