Damned if you do, damned if you don't
Neither the revival of Iraq nor of Afghanistan is going as well as proponents of both wars, myself included, would have hoped. The authority and legitimacy of both local and national governments remains tentative, violent insurgencies are still active and effective, and reconstruction and revitalization efforts have yielded disappointing results. Neither country is as far down the road to recovery as any of us would like.
The purpose of this post is not to delve into the various and sundry reasons for that state of affairs. No, I'm simply interested in pointing out a particular dynamic operating among many of us who look back and try to figure out how it all could have been done better.
On the one hand, you have folks - including at least one very senior officer in the Canadian military - who think the de-Baathification of Iraq and the disbanding of the Iraqi army were collosal mistakes. Bruce at Flit falls into this broad category of pundit:
First off, much of the German army was kept in being or reconscripted into labour battalions to assist in early rebuilding. I identified the May 23, 2003 decision to permanently disband the Iraqi military and aggressively de-Baathify the civil service as a huge error in September of that year, and nothing that's happened since has changed that opinion.
Many of these same people will argue that the way the Afghan situation was handled was a much smarter line of attack: work with those, regardless of previous political affiliation, who seem to have a grasp on how to push and pull the levers of power and command the authority within their community to do so effectively. In Afghanistan, this meant bringing 'warlords' into the fold.
The problem with that particular plan is now quite evident to people on the ground:
Even before I arrived in Kandahar, in December, 2001, I was worried about what kind of government would replace the Taliban regime. For it seemed that U.S. officials were ushering discredited warlords into positions of power, though the Afghan people wanted nothing of them, and gave President Hamid Karzai a resounding mandate to expel them from the body politic. In 2002 and 2003, the U.S. government prevented Mr. Karzai from moving against these warlords, and then he, discouraged, gave up trying. The result is a government that is devoured by corruption, with offices up for sale, and officials whose entire motivation is to extract money and favours from their countrymen.
Safia Ama Jan, unfortunately, was one of those, and so her death is very emblematic indeed. She used her office to monopolize money earmarked for Kandahar women, pocketing much of it and using the rest to favour exclusively the members of her own ethnic group. Afghans currently dread interaction with officials like Safia Ama Jan. Bribes are extracted for the least administrative task; soldiers manhandle people or shake them down; principals steal humanitarian assistance earmarked for their students.
"We are like a man trying to balance on two watermelons," said Zarghona, a member of my co-operative, this summer. "The Taliban prey upon us at night, and the government preys upon us in the daytime."
As I mentioned on this blog a year and a half ago, I find the second-guessing on this particular issue frustratingly unconvincing.
Some of the other points critics of the war make are questionable, and come down to carping. Take the example of disbanding the Iraqi army and banning Baathists from holding any positions of power. Turned the country into a chaotic mess, right? In hindsight, maybe. But we'll never be able to know what would have happened if the U.S. had taken the other fork in that road. It's quite possible the insurgency would have been far more effective with Baathist sympathizers in key government positions. And how much would the brutalized Shia and Kurdish populations have supported the reform process if their oppressors had been left in positions of influence? This sort of criticism is about counting angels dancing on pinheads.
Is it worth having the discussion about hypotheticals? Sure it is. But we shouldn't jump to unsubstantiable conclusions. That holds true for my side of the argument as well: keeping experienced Baathist hands on levers of government with which they were intimately familiar might well have avoided much of the chaos that has allowed the insurgency to survive this long. Just because I have a hard time swallowing that line of reasoning doesn't mean I'm right.
Historians, political scientists, and military strategists will dissect the decisions made in these campaigns for decades to come. Distilling the one essential factor that made post-war Japan different from post-war Iraq (or Germany from Afghanistan) will be the speculative work of many a scholar.
But the truth of it as I see it, in the simple terms my non-scholarly understanding permits me, is that there is no definitively right or wrong decision when it comes to rebuilding a country, an entire society from the ground up. Perhaps neither decision would have been a good one; perhaps both were equally unlikely to produce the desired results.
That's why I'll continue to straddle the fence on this issue: nobody's yet made a convincing argument to jump one way over the other. Somehow that doesn't seem to stop either side from trying.