American efforts must rebuild Afghanistan

Ben Goessling

The United States cannot afford to engage in a full-scale war in Afghanistan, nor should we attempt to. History and geography show we would be committing ourselves to a more shameful and heartbreaking version of Vietnam. The United States cannot conquer Afghanistan through conventional means.

More to the point, there is no reason to. Even the broadest reasonable declaration of war would still only be against the Taliban, which controls so little of Afghanistan that only four nations recognize it as the ruling sect. The most liberal educated guess as to how much of Afghanistan the Taliban controls placed their reach at about two-thirds of the entire nation. And that estimate only accounts for sheer landmass. No one seems able to gauge how much of the population pays homage to them.

Before Sept. 11, the Taliban was best known in the United States for their human rights violations. Horror stories of women being stoned to death for not dressing in a prescribed manner, citizens dying because of a lack of health care and rampant starvation were the hallmarks of U.S. citizens’ perceptions of Afghanistan. Most, if not all, of these problems stem from Afghanistan’s devastating decade-long war against the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet army pulled out 12 years ago, factions have been battling each other for control of the ruined country. And while the Taliban claims to have come out on top, they earned leadership over little more than destroyed towns and a starving populace.

There is no cohesive nation on which the United States can declare war; bin Laden has cells in more than 30 countries. Any major military incursion on our part in Afghanistan will do little more than waste U.S. soldiers’ and Afghan citizens’ lives. Moreover, we will ensure the unnecessary longevity of a destructive war and supply Osama bin Laden with a fresh crop of warriors angry at the United States. Even worse, they will be warriors with nothing left to lose. For bin Laden, there could hardly be a better solution, and it is not unthinkable that this is exactly what he wants. Why else would such a nobody attack a nation with the most fearsome military in world history? Whatever his mental failings might be, stupidity is not among them. He must have known this would cause Americans to cry for war and that we would retaliate. What could he gain by such retaliation? The same thing from which the United States is now benefiting: unity. A devastating military strike on Afghanistan will do to the Afghans what the Sept. 11 attacks did to us. Luckily, U.S. citizens had more moderate leaders to turn to. Afghans can only choose between the Taliban and bin Laden.

If the United States wants to destroy bin Laden’s power and reach, we must approach it another way. The most logical approach would be to attack his source of strength: anger. For someone to murder thousands of innocent people, he or she would have to be convinced to hate not just a person, but an entire nation of people. It is the deepest, most dangerous form of prejudice. If we attack that prejudice and show the Afghans something they are not prepared for, we will destroy terrorism’s power base – with the ancillary benefit of making bin Laden look foolish to those he would have fight for him.

The U.S. military should first focus its formidable might on constructing safe havens for Afghans. The traditional refugee camp won’t work and might set the region up for another tragedy like Somalia. Within the camps, sanitation, education, housing and food distribution should be the main focus. Any violence cannot come from U.S. military personnel; it must come from terrorists, if at all. In essence, they must experience a better life than they have seen in the last 12 years.

All this would serve to give Afghans a perspective of the United States that bin Laden and the Taliban don’t want them to see. If we can defend their freedom and show them the promise of a better life – based on our own constitutional principles – there will be no reason for them to fight against us. Also, the United States has a historical base from which to launch this new kind of attack – our aid during the 1980s which helped them repel the Soviet invaders. This time, however, we should remain and help them rebuild their nation, instead of pulling out as soon as we accomplish our initial, superficial goal of finding bin Laden and his network. The United States must show support for Afghans – not for the Taliban or terrorists, but for the people themselves – and win their support. Afghanistan is their country, just as the United States is our country. And just as we were, and still are, willing to fight for that, they will be too.

Gaining their trust will also help ferret out terrorists more expeditiously. Terrorists hide among a nation’s citizenry. When the citizenry no longer wants to support them, there is nowhere else to hide, allowing us to get them more easily.

The United States is indeed engaged in a “New War,” almost completely different than any in which we have thus far engaged. But just as the superior military will win a military war, so must superior ideals win this ideological war.