Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Win This War

I wondered, in last week’s column, whether the war in Afghanistan is still a worthwhile enterprise, nine years on. As American and Canadian governments contemplate withdrawal in 2011, commentators far wiser than I – George Will comes to mind – have opined that it is time for allied forces to pull out. Indeed, I had begun to congratulate myself on my reasonableness and good intellectual company.

Then, I saw the cover of Time magazine. The photo and story are of a young Afghan woman named Aisha, who was apprehended and sentenced to mutilation by Taliban authorities for running away from her husband’s house. As writer Aryn Baker puts it: “Aisha's brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose.” Baker adds, “This didn't happen 10 years ago, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It happened last year.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and some U.S. policymakers have floated the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban, in hopes of achieving stability and peace. Personally, I prefer freedom and human dignity.

But even if a reconciliation were possible, would we want it?

Have we fought and sacrificed for nine years only to leave Aisha and millions like her to their fate? Afghanistan presents a challenge, in which we are already engaged, and in which the delineation between barbarity and civilization is plain to see. If we cannot see this through, in what way will Western nations, blessed beyond the comprehension of most of the world, stand against evil in our time? By recycling? Driving hybrid cars? Gimme a break.

But let us say we depart, giving a finger-wag to the grinning maniacs left in charge, admonishing, “Now, no terrorist acts! And keep the amputations and honour killings to a minimum. Okay? We’re really, really cereal!”

Would that achieve our humane and practical goals?

Either way, the strategic and humanitarian missions are not mutually exclusive. And to accomplish both, we must win this war.

Often, when the concept of total victory is put forward, people suddenly become military historians. “Ah,” they say, “even the Soviet Union couldn’t win in Afghanistan.” For those who missed the 20th century, there were any number of things the Soviets could not do, including, but not limited to, basic economics and intentional comedy. You’ll excuse me if I don’t use the regime that brought us the collective farm as the benchmark for what can and cannot be done.

Along these lines, accommodation with the Taliban should be akin to Ronald Reagan’s prescription for rapprochement with the USSR: “We win, they lose.”

When he was Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier told me, “There is no such thing as a doorstop defence.” That is, no nation can be an oasis to itself and, as we have learned during this decade, darkness from elsewhere in the world comes to find us at home. Lest we forget, we went into Afghanistan to deprive Islamist terrorists of safe haven after they killed thousands of people in North America.

Not only do we have a human obligation to succeed in Afghanistan, but the strategic argument still obtains. As the poet Terence averred, “Nothing that is human is foreign to me.” For Aisha and the people of Afghanistan, let us remember that.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.