As Yogi Berrafamously put it, "It's déjà vu all over again." Amid a looming budget standoff,a presidential election cycle in full swing, and the popular dissatisfaction ofboth the left and the right, the United States has arrived -- yet again -- at acritical juncture in its war in Afghanistan, with key decisions being debatedconcerning the post-surge scenario and the prospects of political reconciliationwith various militant groups. The tragedy is that, much like its previousiterations, the current round of the Afghanistan debate in Washington isriddled with a staggering number of mischaracterizations. While the Cold Warproduced a cohort of able Soviet specialists, the decade-long war inAfghanistan has so far failed to produce sufficientregional expertise in the United States (this reasonably comprehensive list, for example,identifies just 107 Afghanistan-watchers in the United States).
Consequently, anumber of questionable assumptions about the Afghan people -- concerning theirattitudes to foreigners, their history, their society, and their values -- gounchallenged. Historicalanalogiesand socioeconomicdata are regularly manipulated by various parties to validate their ownbiases and preconceptions, and readingsof Afghan historyare, when not completely erroneous, unapologeticallyWestern-centric. For example, onecommon view that has gainedcirculation among think-tankers, policymakers, and congressional staffersis that a majority of Afghans are inherently hostile to the United States. Yet this viewpoint is not borne out by polling data, however imperfect. Thelast pollconducted by ABC News, the BBC and, ARD German TV, for example, says that nearlyseven in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S. forces in their country.
Another and perhapsmore damaging misperception is of Afghanistan as the "graveyardof empires": a historically insignificant strategic backwater where greatcivilizations -- inevitably European ones -- ended up mired in ruinous war. Buteven a cursory examination of the region's history makes a mockery of this nowentrenched concept. During his conquests, Alexander of Macedon spent about twoyears solidifyinghis control of what is today Afghanistan and Central Asia, referred to inhis day as Bactria and Sogdiana. In fact, his army chose to reverse its coursein today's Punjab, over 200 miles to modern Afghanistan's east, afterthe Battleof the Hydaspes. The 19th-century British Empire, despitean initial setback, wonsubsequent engagements against the Afghans in its bid to create a bufferzone to British India's northwest. And the defeat of the Soviet military in the1980s was only made possible with American,Pakistani, and Saudi support.
The "graveyard of empires" canard also largely ignores non-Western history. Ancient and medievalAfghanistan was in fact at the heart of a number of major civilizations,including the GreekBactrian states; the KushanEmpire, which was a contemporary of imperial Rome; and, from the 10th to 12th centuries, the Ghaznavidsultanate, whoserulers made regular military forays into the subcontinent. The great MughalEmpire, at its zenith perhaps the most prosperous realm on Earth, had itsfoundations in what is today's Afghanistan, when its progenitor Baburestablished a presence in the region between Kabul and Peshawar. Count, on topof all this, several centuries of sustained Persian rule over the region.
In addition topopular misconceptions of Afghan xenophobia and historical backwardness, argumentsare regularly setforth about theincompatibility of Afghan societywith democracy.Although Afghanistan does have a history of underdeveloped democraticinstitutions, there are many reasons to question this blanket assessment.Definitional problems certainly persist: For many rural Afghans, democracyconnotes unlimited freedoms, rather than responsible and self-determinedgovernance. During the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet forces and their Afghan clientsoften called themselves democrats, further adding to confusion about the termin the minds of many Afghans. At the same time, there are mechanisms -- shuras,jirgas -- that, though hardly Jeffersonian, are analogous to the town hallsthat formed the bedrock of early American democracy. In this year's edition ofthe reasonably reliable Asia Foundation surveyof Afghanistan -- which polled 6,348 Afghans from all 34 provinces -- anoverwhelming 69 percent of Afghans polled say they are satisfied with the waydemocracy works in Afghanistan.
Ethnic politics isanother common source of confusion, with regular calls now heard inWashington for a soft partition of the state, creating a Taliban-dominated "Pashtunistan" separated from a confederation of provinces dominated by ethnicTajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Soft partitions, which were also advocatedin the case of Iraq not that long ago by U.S. Vice President JoeBiden, may appear to be easy and seductive solutions to pacifying complexpost-colonial societies overrun by civil war. But among otherproblems, they present a moral quandary, implicitly (thoughunintentionally) opening the door to ethnic cleansing. A cursory look athistory tells us that the partition of mixed political entities has almostalways been accompanied or preceded by ethnic cleansing or immense sectarianviolence: Consider India, Palestine, Bosnia, or Cyprus. Afghanistan'spopulation is heterogeneous, and given the commitment to establishing apluralistic and democratic state, calls for the country's de facto or de jurepartition appear both irresponsible and impractical.
Just as there areseveral peculiar narratives about Afghan society and history in steadycirculation, thereis also growing skepticism aboutthe United States' abilityto prosecute theAfghanistan war, with enormousdivergences between official U.S. and Afghanperspectives. One reason often cited for limiting the United States'involvement is the financial burden that the Afghanistan war represents in an era ofausterity. But according to the Congressional ResearchService, the war in Afghanistan will cost the United States an estimated$114 billion this year, a mere 3 percent of the federal budget, and a muchsmaller fraction of the American economy. This appears to be a small investmentrelative to the importance to American foreign policy and national security ofgetting Afghanistan right.
Somecommentators make theargument that the Afghanistan war is a sideshow to other forms of securitycompetition, particularly in East Asia -- that, in essence, the continued U.S.involvement in Afghanistan distracts from looming threats to U.S. securityposed by other great powers such as China. This is questionable for at leasttwo reasons. Firstly, other major powers -- including China, India, Russia, andIran, all of whom see Afghanistan as part of their extended neighborhoods -- areclosely watching developments affecting the U.S. position there. Americansuccess or failure will resonate in Moscow and Beijing, as well as New Delhiand Tehran. Secondly, the United States is not confronted with a binary choicebetween prosecuting the Afghanistan war and retaining a military presence againstmajor state threats. The United States has faced multiple security challengesbefore; the resources required to tackle them are quite different from oneanother; and U.S. military resources dedicated to securing Europe and theAsia-Pacific region have been steadilydeclining regardlessof investments in Afghanistan.
Finally, it is widely believed today inWashington that the Taliban enjoy popularpublic support, particularly among the ethnic Pashtun population ofAfghanistan. If true, it is certainly not reinforced by extant survey data. Noris the Afghan public weary of the United States' intensified involvement. Accordingto the Asia Foundation survey, aplurality of Afghans (46 percent) believes that the country is headed in the rightdirection, compared with 35 percent who believe otherwise. What is even moreencouraging, only 11 percent of Afghans have a lot of sympathy for armed opposition groups,half the proportion who expressed similar sentiments two years ago. In that sameperiod, those who have "no sympathy at all" for the Taliban have almost doubledto 64 percent of the population. Despite frustrations with the ability of the currentgovernment to deliver, Afghans express optimism about democracy as a principle,associating it most closely with peace and freedom. The United States, suchpolls clearly reveal, should not fool itself with undue pessimism. Its effortsare gradually beginning to bear fruit.
Currently,Afghanistan's fledgling state, though challenged frequently by security, governance,and development problems, has an elected government and an internationalpresence to contribute to the work of nation-building. Despite the ongoinginsurgency, widespread corruption, and the daily risk of arbitrary orextrajudicial killing, the Afghan people continue to strive for normalcy intheir day-to-day lives and hope for peace and prosperity in the future. Withthat in mind, the pontification of a few pundits and the exigencies ofnear-term politics should not lead to poor or rash decision-making. A balancedview of Afghan public opinion, history, culture, and politics -- and, just asimportantly, of the United States' ability to shape these factors in advancingits national security interests -- is crucial as Washington debates a decisionthat will have important regional and international implications for decades tocome.
JavidAhmad, a native of Kabul, is program coordinator and Dhruva Jaishankar is program officer with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the UnitedStates in Washington, D.C. The views reflected here are their own.
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