When we helped to found the Yale Afghanistan Forum last year, we wanted to set up a place on campus for dialogue and education about the country and about American involvement there. We’ve been working on it. But while calling for dialogue is easy to do, giving that dialogue a constructive shape is significantly more difficult.
Yesterday marked the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, allowing a wide variety of politicians, commentators, and experts a chance to offer their opinions and policy prescriptions. In the face of so many disagreements, casual observers hide behind the attitude that Afghanistan is an inherently unknowable place, a “graveyard of empires” too strange and foreign to be understood. We don’t think that’s true.
We can’t—and won’t—present yet another plan for fixing Afghanistan in this column. Instead, we encourage students to think seriously about the issues involved, and, if possible, to avoid three fallacies that have plagued the public debate.
First, Yale students should take care not to confuse buzz with substance. During the recent elections, some American journalists wrote excited profiles of Ashraf Ghani, the western-educated former finance minister running for president against incumbent Hamid Karzai. One even called him the “Kingmaker of Kabul.” In the end, Ghani got less than three percent of the vote. Journalists looking for an angle failed to consider that the qualities that make for a good interview don’t necessarily translate into electoral strength in Afghanistan.
Second, students should avoid the temptation to squeeze Afghanistan into their ideological worldviews without considering the specific facts of the situation. This advice applies even to people who think they occupy a sensible middle position. Moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins, referring to the military’s recent attempt to limit civilian deaths, said “I am troubled if we are putting our troops at greater risk… to avoid Afghan casualties.” Collins’ intuition that there must be a middle ground between advocates of stepped-up counterinsurgency and advocates of complete withdrawal led her to an incoherent position: keeping troops in harm’s way without an effective strategy and without regard for the Afghans whose security is supposedly the mission’s objective. In this case, a compromise for compromise’s sake makes less sense than a reasoned case in favor of either side.
Finally, we should remember to think of Afghanistan as a place where people live, not an arena for clever arguments. Our attempts at opium eradication, fair elections, and state-building will have far-reaching consequences. Getting these decisions right now is much more important than being able to say “I told you so” in 50 years. This applies to conservatives who think they can “win” the debate on Afghanistan the same way they “won” the debate over the surge in Iraq, and liberals who want to deny them that victory. Both place winning the argument above the well-being millions of Afghans who do not have a choice about whether to stay “involved” in their homeland, and above our own security, which still does depend on how events unfold in a remote corner of the world.
The failings in the way we talk about Afghanistan parallel some of the mistakes the United States has made in its previous conduct there. General McChrystal recently called for a fundamental shift in American strategy; the domestic debate needs to change in the same way. Only an understanding of the human consequences of our actions can inspire us to form our opinions with the necessary care. Without this, the debate over Afghanistan will continue to suffer from self-righteousness, callousness, and inflexible ideology—flaws still worth fighting against, even after eight years.
Mari Oye is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Andrew Mayersohn is a junior in Pierson College.