They've got to want it

Friedman in the NYT today: "Why do we have to recruit and train our allies, the Afghan Army, to fight? That is like someone coming to you with a plan to recruit and train Brazilian boys to play soccer.

If there is one thing Afghan males should not need to be trained to do, it’s to engage in warfare. That may be the only thing they all know how to do after 30 years of civil war and centuries of resisting foreign powers. After all, who is training the Taliban? They’ve been fighting the U.S. Army to a draw — and many of their commanders can’t even read.

It is not about the way. It is about the will. I have said this before, and I will say it again: The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them..."

"The Camp David peace treaty started with Israelis and Egyptians meeting in secret — without us. The Oslo peace process started with Israelis and Palestinians meeting in secret — without us. The Sunni tribal awakening in Iraq against pro-Al Qaeda forces started with them — without us. When it starts with them, when they assume ownership, our military and diplomatic support can be a huge multiplier, as we’ve seen in Iraq and at Camp David.

Ownership is everything in business, war and diplomacy. People will fight with sticks and stones and no training at all for a government they feel ownership of. When they — Israelis, Palestinians, Afghans, Iraqis — assume ownership over a policy choice, everything is possible, particularly the most important thing of all: that what gets built becomes self-sustaining without us. But when we want it more than they do, nothing is self-sustaining, and they milk us for all we’re worth. I simply don’t see an Afghan “awakening” in areas under Taliban control. And without that, at scale, nothing we build will be self-sustaining."

This reminds me of Eritrea. Ethiopia fought a war against the Eritrean freedom fighters for 36 years. They had 10 times the population, 100 times the resources, all the international support -- Ethiopia essentially killed every fighting age man in Eritrea in an attempt to make Eritrea kneel down. But Eritrea did not kneel down. The old men and the women and the little kids retreated up into the arid mountains on the edge of the Sahara and waited. They had more babies, and grew them up in tunnels where the Ethiopian planes couldn't find them. And eventually they fielded a new army at a point where Ethiopia was vulnerable (fighting their own civil war) and they won the independence they had refused to give up.

When will our leaders learn that you cannot force people to do what they do not want to do? The only way to permanently change the world is to change the way people think. Hard power may be superior to soft power in making quick change, but soft power is far more effective over the long term. Afghanistanis know the Americans will leave at some point. They're happy to fight for decades. They have no other place to go. If the US does conduct a surge, and it's wildly successful and it pacifies the country, it will only last as long as the US continues to fund it. Once responsibility returns to the Karzai government the corruption and mismanagement will open the door again to the Taliban.

I am sympathetic to the administration's dilemma -- there are no good choices. But Friedman's point resonates. Maybe we should make the hard choice and start bringing the Afghan engagement to an end.

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