As 9/11 nears its eighth anniversary on Friday, debate over the war it launched has hit the boiling point.
Two Omahans with expertise in international affairs sympathize with Americans’ war weariness, but say the effort in Afghanistan must go on — with adjustments.
President Barack Obama soon expects a formal request for more troops from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, even as a recent poll suggests that about half the American public does not consider the war — launched in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, plus their Taliban protectors — to be worth fighting.
Conservative commentator George Will added his voice to those who want a pullout of U.S. troops, writing that “nation-building would be impossible, even if we knew how,” because of the Afghans’ corrupt government and the complicated nature of the country’s culture.
Creighton University’s Terry Clark and the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Thomas Gouttierre, during separate interviews between classes last week, spoke of opinion on the matter falling into three rough groups. Those would be people who:
Ÿ Think it was a mistake for U.S. troops to have entered Afghanistan in the first place.
Ÿ Think the invasion was warranted but favor withdrawal now because they see further military effort as fruitless or worse.
Ÿ Think the war was essential to undertake and, notwithstanding mistakes made along the way, remains essential.
The Omaha professors find themselves in the third group. Clark, only half jokingly, suggested a fourth group: those who say “What’s Afghanistan?”
Gouttierre suggested the list could be simplified: those who think the war unwinnable and those who think it imperative.
“We were attacked by people who are still out there,” he said, though bin Laden is widely believed to be hiding now in neighboring Pakistan. “We’ve got to remember why we went into Afghanistan.” Failure would mean a further widening of terrorism, he said.
Yet “it’s understandable why people are concerned. ... Our leaders have failed us,” Gouttierre said, describing a list of missteps during the Bush administration:
Ÿ The United States entered Afghanistan in late 2001 “with a wrong understanding of the situation,” believing it a strictly military problem and failing to grasp the damage done to Afghan society during two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule.
Ÿ Too much of the war effort was “outsourced” to others. A “donor-conference approach” meant pledges of civilian and military help often went unfulfilled, Gouttierre said, and gaps in Afghans’ management experience were ignored. “We set ourselves and the Afghans up for failure.”
Ÿ The Afghan army and police weren’t rebuilt fast enough to help secure the country.
On the other hand, Gouttierre — who, as head of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, is preparing to visit the country this month to check on literacy and teacher-training projects — and Clark both saw reasons for optimism.
They emphasize different points partly because their academic pursuits differ.
Gouttierre is a dean of “international studies,” which delves into specific countries or regions — their histories, cultures, peoples, languages and current conditions.
Clark directs a program in “international relations,” which focuses on global politics — the interaction of nations and other actors on the world stage, the rise and fall of political systems, questions of war and peace.
Thus, Gouttierre sees hope in the attitudes of Afghans, who he said recognize their need for U.S. assistance.
“They’ve always liked America” and want its help getting “out of this mess,” he said. And current U.S. military leaders better understand the peculiar obstacles of Afghanistan than did those at the war’s outset, he said.
Clark said prospects markedly improved with the death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, killed in a U.S. airstrike last month, and with the wave of lethal infighting that followed.
“This is decimating very thin ranks” and aggravating old rivalries within the Taliban and al-Qaida, Clark said.
Moreover, he said, Taliban fighters overreached this year in northwest Pakistan, drawing a government counteroffensive that threatens the area serving as their base and an al-Qaida haven.
“If I were the (U.S.) commanding officer over there, I would be giddy right now,” he said.
To move forward, Clark suggested the U.S. must:
Ÿ Avoid the “seize and hold” tactics used in Iraq — a far different landscape and society. Rather, he said, U.S. troops should seize key positions and disrupt Taliban operations from them.
Ÿ Buy time and communicate a “we’re staying” message to the enemy.
Ÿ Move on the political front — “this will not be won on the ground” — toward a system befitting Afghanistan’s diffuse, rural and little-educated society.
Government could be shifted to a system of feudalism in which regional leaders, or warlords, would rule their areas and pledge loyalty to a weaker central administration.
Ÿ Peel away defectors from the Taliban movement, which Clark and Gouttierre both described as a loose collection of men with vastly different levels of ideological commitment — or none at all.
That will mean forgiving the defectors and reintegrating them into society, Clark added. In a similar vein, Gouttierre said reconstruction projects must focus on employing more Afghans.
Contact the writer:
Reports of Taliban getting U.S. funds
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. State Department said Thursday that an investigation has begun into whether U.S. development funding for Afghanistan is being diverted to local warlords and extremists, following allegations that road and bridge contractors were paying “protection” money to the Taliban.
Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. Agency for International Development is looking into reports that some funds may be going to the Taliban, as part of a larger probe into other diversions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan. He emphasized that no diversions have been confirmed.
His comments came in response to a question about a report in the Web-based publication Global Post that cited allegations that USAID money for road and bridge construction in Afghanistan was being siphoned off by contractors to pay members of the Taliban not to attack specific projects and workers.
A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., vowed to hold hearings on the matter this fall, saying: “The idea that American taxpayer dollars are ending up with the Taliban is a case for grave concern.”