Thursday, 16 December 2010

Is it Time for the Afghans to Leave Afghanistan?

This provocative proposition was brought to my attention and I was asked for my opinion. It was posted online at World Affairs Journal.

The thing is, it sounds so reasonable at first, when you read the rationale, but my gut reaction is entirely opposite. Somewhere in resolving that inner conflict I hoped to grasp something worth posting.

A friend related the idea to European settlers who almost entirely cleared  North America of its indigenous peoples.  But I wanted to look deeper than an analogy, at just why this idea is terrible.

Let's start with the "Land of the Free".  The Bill of Rights proclaims all 'men' to be equal: not just all Americans.  So even peaceful Afghans should be free.  Free means having the choice to remain in your home, and in your homeland.  So forcing Afghans off their land is not on, despite the hypocritical historic treatment of indigenous people.

And think about the practical issues. Even if we went ahead, but people weren't willing. Would that not inflame anti-Western extremism and terrorism? How would the world react to news coverage of our military forces throwing civilians from their homes, then setting them on fire? Would we want millions of angry, hate-filled refugees living among us in our comfortable suburbs? No, that is no solution.

However, providing Afghans with a free choice, even incentive to migrate, is another matter. By our own standards, many Afghans may well be better off in more industrial cultures. Right wing isolationism in many industrial nations leads people to oppose immigration, so there may be a 'hearts and minds' opportunity back home!

Surely as better motivated and aspirational Afghans leave, the situation for those remaining may be less tolerable, leading to a downward spiral of despair, crime and religious extremism among those left behind. Doesn't that sound familiar? Is that what Afghanistan has become already? Have all the people 'we would want' already left Afghanistan?

It seems to me that the solution is to invest and improve Afghanistan, not clear it out and abandon it. The military and civil resources available to do this were severely diluted by the absurd diversionary war in Iraq, which took our focus from the real issue in Afghanistan.

If we in the industrialised West want to solve the problem, then we need to pay for the solution, however hard that is in the present economic climate. If we don't then we will join the end of the line of nations who have tried to tame Afghanistan and failed. And we must live with the consequences of leaving a poisonous hotbed of crime, extremism and terrorist training in place.

The treatment is costly. But the disease may be more costly. I don't know of a low-cost solution - but I am convinced that forcing, or motivating, Afghans to leave Afghanistan simply isn't it.

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