Engage more, do war less in Afghanistan

And now, the last six months, as the Taliban seem to be winning the war, everyone − Americans, NATO commanders and ambassadors on the spot and, not least, the Pakistanis, are falling over themselves to talk and to engage.”

Appeasement is a word the critics of engagement have always liked to toss around, perhaps forgetting that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who talked to Hitler, was also pushing re-armament at home. It was Winston Churchill and his friends who started the “appeasement” campaign as a way of unseating Chamberlain for their own self-interested political ends. So we should not even bother to duck when that word is thrown at us.

More seriously, as Richard Haass has observed, “Sceptics have argued that engagement strategies can invite problems of ‘moral hazard’” − a term used when bankers are bailed out when their investments have hit the rocks. “A cash-strapped regime watching America ‘buy out’ North Korea’s nuclear programme may be inspired to embark on its own endeavour in the hopes of later ‘selling’ it to the U.S.”

But it is doubtful if Iran, Syria, Russia, China, Cuba, the Taliban or those other countries with which the West have problems would come into the category of ‘moral hazard.’ They would not be much interested in being ‘bought.’ On the other hand, Libya clearly was ‘bought’ and North Korea still could be if the US plays its cards better than it did during the recent Bush administration.

Engagement has many virtues over war, confrontation or sanctions. Sanctions have an indifferent record of achieving success, hurting the poor more than the regime, as in Zimbabwe today. War, as can be clearly seen in Afghanistan, also hurts the poor and vulnerable most. According to the UN, civilian deaths have increased by 40% over the last year.

But engagement, because it is a slow process, depends on the cultivated support of a well-prepared domestic base. When President Jimmy Carter tried to normalise relations with ex-enemy Vietnam, he came up against Congress’s antagonism and the vociferous objections of the veterans’ lobby.

Years later, President Bill Clinton had more success because he carefully solicited influential Congressional leaders and with the judicious use of American aid and the incentive of lifting sanctions persuaded Hanoi’s leadership to comply with US demands, not least full-scale help on finding the remains of American servicemen killed in action.

With Afghanistan, President Barack Obama is not cultivating any base for sustained non-military action. By raising force levels by 17,000 soldiers he has thrown down a gauntlet to the Taliban leadership who, given the success against the Red Army, probably think that is just 17,000 more soldiers to be chewed up. They can out-patience any foreign invader as they showed most recently with the Red Army. They also did it to the British, the Persians and, long ago, to Alexander the Great.

The Americans and NATO can talk all they want about engagement, but this is shooting themselves in the foot. They have to back up their willingness to talk by some credible military steps to lower the intensity of combat, and a diversion of troops into peacekeeping and rebuilding the schools, hospitals and villages they have helped or provoked to decimate.

This is what Pakistan has belatedly done in Swat, part of the North-West Frontier Province. It has allowed the local government to engage with the local Taliban so that in return for allowing Shariah law once again the Taliban will call off the killing.

Western troops are not fighting the Taliban to outlaw old legal and religious customs, or even to emancipate women. That cannot be done by bombs and rifles. This kind of social change takes decades of patient evolution. Education, even if it is male only, is the way to keep the wheels of evolution turning.

As for locating Osama bin Laden, good detective work is the way, as the Israelis proved with the hunt for Adolf Eichmann.

Engage more. Do war less, Mr Obama.

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