Drilling in Afghanistan
Thursday, 31 July 2008

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Sometimes in politics, particularly in campaigns, parties get wedded to slogans — so wedded that no one stops to think about what they’re saying, whether the reality has changed and what the implications would be if their bumper stickers really guided policy when they took office. Today, we have two examples of that: “Democrats for Afghanistan” and “Republicans for offshore drilling.”

Republicans have become so obsessed with the notion that we can drill our way out of our current energy crisis that re-opening our coastal waters to offshore drilling has become their answer for every energy question.

Anyone who looks at the growth of middle classes around the world and their rising demands for natural resources, plus the dangers of climate change driven by our addiction to fossil fuels, can see that clean renewable energy — wind, solar, nuclear and stuff we haven’t yet invented — is going to be the next great global industry. It has to be if we are going to grow in a stable way.

Therefore, the country that most owns the clean power industry is going to most own the next great technology breakthrough — the E.T. revolution, the energy technology revolution — and create millions of jobs and thousands of new businesses, just like the I.T. revolution did.

Republicans, by mindlessly repeating their offshore-drilling mantra, focusing on a 19th-century fuel, remind me of someone back in 1980 arguing that we should be putting all our money into making more and cheaper IBM Selectric typewriters — and forget about these things called the “PC” and “the Internet.” It is a strategy for making America a second-rate power and economy.

But Democrats have their analog. For many Democrats, Afghanistan was always the “good war,” as opposed to Iraq. I think Barack Obama needs to ask himself honestly: “Am I for sending more troops to Afghanistan because I really think we can win there, because I really think that that will bring an end to terrorism, or am I just doing it because to get elected in America, post-9/11, I have to be for winning some war?”

The truth is that Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan are just different fronts in the same war. The core problem is that the Arab-Muslim world in too many places has been failing at modernity, and were it not for $120-a-barrel oil, that failure would be even more obvious. For far too long, this region has been dominated by authoritarian politics, massive youth unemployment, outdated education systems, a religious establishment resisting reform and now a death cult that glorifies young people committing suicide, often against other Muslims.

The humiliation this cocktail produces is the real source of terrorism. Saddam exploited it. Al Qaeda exploits it. Pakistan’s intelligence services exploit it. Hezbollah exploits it. The Taliban exploit it.

The only way to address it is by changing the politics. Producing islands of decent and consensual government in Baghdad or Kabul or Islamabad would be a much more meaningful and lasting contribution to the war on terrorism than even killing bin Laden in his cave. But it needs local partners. The reason the surge helped in Iraq is because Iraqis took the lead in confronting their own extremists — the Shiites in their areas, the Sunnis in theirs. That is very good news — although it is still not clear that they can come together in a single functioning government.

The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.

Take 20 minutes and read the stunning article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine by Thomas Schweich, a former top Bush counternarcotics official focused on Afghanistan, and dwell on his paragraph on Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

“Karzai was playing us like a fiddle: The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009, he would be elected to a new term.”

Then read the Afghan expert Rory Stewart’s July 17 Time magazine cover story from Kabul: “A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge, and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining ... The more responsibility we take in Afghanistan, the more we undermine the credibility and responsibility of the Afghan government and encourage it to act irresponsibly. Our claims that Afghanistan is the ‘front line in the war on terror’ and that ‘failure is not an option’ have convinced the Afghan government that we need it more than it needs us. The worse things become, the more assistance it seems to receive. This is not an incentive to reform.”

Before Democrats adopt “More Troops to Afghanistan” as their bumper sticker, they need to make sure it’s a strategy for winning a war — not an election.
Thomas L. Friedman became the paper's foreign-affairs columnist in 1995. He won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, his third Pulitzer for The New York Times.

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