Obama, Change South Asia Policy

Arlington, Va.


Obama, Change South Asia Policy

Arlington, Va.

Your lead editorial “After Mumbai” [Dec. 22] offers the right policy prescription for South Asia to President-elect Obama. Given the failure of the “war on terror” in Afghanistan and the spillover into Pakistan and beyond, a military surge could exacerbate the grave situation. The region is a nuclear flashpoint. It has been a hotbed of ethnic and sectarian violence, terrorism, secessionist insurgencies and interstate hostilities for well over half a century. Disputed territories between India and Pakistan, most notably Kashmir, have led to wars and perennial border skirmishes.

In the wake of terror attacks in Mumbai–apparently backed by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist organization aligned with the Kashmir cause, now in the Al Qaeda network–tensions between India and Pakistan are close to spinning out of control. A broader rethinking of the regional strategy is in order. Alternatives to military intervention are critical. A negotiated solution involving India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Russia and Iran is imperative. Encouraging a dialogue between aggrieved tribal and ethnic groups and ruling authorities would be key to fostering peace and stability in South Asia. This calls for radical policy change. Can Obama do it?

SAIRA YAMIN, analyst
Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution
George Mason University

Obama, Rethink Afghanistan

Falls Church, Va.

Robert Dreyfuss’s otherwise excellent “Obama’s Afghan Dilemma” [Dec. 22] concludes on a troubling note: suggesting that Obama should “offer an end to US occupation of Afghanistan if the Taliban-led movement abandons its ties to Al Qaeda.” This shortcut solution, which purports to realize our minimal goal of pushing Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, sadly echoes our decision in 1989 to walk away from a chaotic Afghanistan once Soviet forces were driven out. Now as then, a premature departure from an admittedly complex situation would betray a broader purpose and promise to the Afghan people. Now as then, we would be abandoning Afghans to turmoil in which foreign-backed elements, many of them war criminals, would continue to struggle for supremacy.

The alternative course would be much harder: to expend money and blood to rebuild a peaceful, relatively democratic state at peace with its neighbors and free from foreign intervention. This would have been the Afghanistan that Afghans and the world knew before the 1978 coup and 1979 Soviet invasion. While far more difficult and expensive, fulfilling that commitment would at least avoid the calumny of another US/international community betrayal of the long-suffering Afghan people.

EDMUND McWILLIAMS, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan (1988-89)

Dreyfuss Replies

Alexandria, Va.

Edmund McWilliams’s thoughtful comment reflects precisely the painful dilemma that the United States faces. It’s unconscionable to abandon Afghanistan, especially since it was the reckless American support for the Afghan jihad in the 1970s and ’80s that created most of the mess. But if we start with the premise that the United States can’t defeat the Taliban militarily, then we need to come up with an alternative. Most, even the great majority, of those fighting the United States aren’t global-minded terrorists. But it’s also true that many of them are ultraconservative, even reactionary, on issues from religion to culture to the role of women. The United States is not going to change that. Washington can’t reorganize Afghan society, and it can’t drag Afghans into the twenty-first century. The Obama administration has to face the fact that Afghanistan may be governed for a long, long time by an ugly bunch of right-wing Muslims and warlords, just as Iraq may be ruled by a sectarian gang of Iranian-backed Shiite religious fanatics.

So I disagree with McWilliams’s point that we have to expend “blood” to fix Afghanistan. But “money,” yes, and lots of it, in concert with the rest of the world. Does Iran want to stake a claim to influence in western Afghanistan? Let it pay for the privilege, with US encouragement. Does China want access to Central Asian energy through Afghanistan? Welcome, Beijing–that’ll cost you billions in aid. Does India want to check Pakistan’s far right and get that pipeline from Iran built? Come on in, New Delhi, and pay up. Does Europe want to get its caveat-saddled troops out of Afghanistan? Sure, but it’ll cost ya. In the Senate, Obama and Biden co-sponspored a bill to provide Pakistan with $1.5 billion in economic aid every year for a decade. How about doubling that for Afghanistan, guys? And immediately. By dangling something like a coordinated $100 billion or so over the next ten years, and coupling that with a diplomatic surge among Afghanistan’s neighbors, who support those “foreign-backed elements” that McWilliams rightly denounces, the United States can find its exit strategy. The cornerstone of all that is to offer the rebels–at least those willing to talk, and that won’t include Al Qaeda–a deal that involves an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sadly, though, Obama seems determined to support Adm. Mike Mullen’s plan to double US forces in that quagmire. That will make it Obama’s war, and Obama’s folly.


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The correct address for the group Resurrection After Exoneration, mentioned in Katha Pollitt’s January 5 column: 3301 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA 70117.

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