In the late sixties, and since then in endless syndication, we learned that things are pretty simple. In episode after episode of that original Star Trek show, the ship’s medical officer, McCoy, would turn to Captain James T. Kirk and say those fateful words – He’s dead, Jim. And that changed everything. Of course if it was a major character who’d bought it we’d find out whoever it was wasn’t really dead – and if it was Crewman Six (without a name) that hapless fellow actually was quite dead. But that’s a minor matter. The death, such as it was, shot the plot off in a new direction. It was the fulcrum or the turning point or whatever – an old narrative device, like when Hamlet stabs Polonius, who had been hiding in the curtains in his mother’s chambers, and decides moping about and feeling hopeless was rather stupid and maybe now he ought to do something about his nasty uncle, now his stepfather. There’s nothing like a death get you moving forward.
In the real world it’s not that simple. It seems so very long ago that Saddam Hussein was tried and hanged in Baghdad. And that didn’t change much – the Shiites and Sunnis still had each other, for years after Saddam was gone, and we had to escalate our presence with that “surge” just to keep a lid on things, and, as we said, to allow some room for all sides, including the Kurds, to settle down and form a government. They never really did. The Bush administration did its McCoy thing – he’s dead, folks. And the local response was clear – yeah, so what? And he was the wrong guy anyway – as a response to the September 11 attacks of 2001, this was kind of odd. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with that. The narrative offered us never did make much sense. Any screenwriter knows better.
But now the bad guy, who actually ordered the September 11 attacks of 2001, and bragged about it, is actually dead. We finally bumped off Osama bin Laden. The narrative can move forward, the plot can shoot off in a new direction. No need for us to mope about and feel helpless like some goofy Hamlet, feeling all put upon – this changes things. Maybe we won. We’re still trying to wrap our heads around that, as we’ve been conditioned to feel much aggrieved and locked in an endless twilight war against a mysterious and forever elusive enemy – an enemy that will always be there, no matter what we do. But maybe that isn’t so. Could that be?
Jim Wallis, the CEO of the pop-religious group Sojourners – with its mission to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world – thinks so. He is also the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery and blogs at www.godspolitics.com – and if you check his bio you see he recently served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and currently participates in the Global Agenda Council on Faith of the World Economic Forum. It’s not like Wallis is a marginal figure.
And in this item he argues that after ten long years the national conversation on the war in Afghanistan has changed significantly. There’s nothing like a death get you moving forward. And the idea is that the hunt for Osama bin Laden, used for years to justify the war, is over:
The official reasons for continuing the war are disappearing each day. The threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan has significantly weakened. Many people are shocked when they learn that there are only 100 al Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan, but more than 100,000 American troops remain. As the debate on the deficit heats up, we need to say again and again that the more than $100 billion a year that is spent on the war is no longer sustainable. Every American should know these numbers: 100 terrorists; 100,000 troops; $100 billion – it just isn’t adding up anymore. There are no more excuses for delaying a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In short, the plot shot off in a new direction, as the new USA Today/Gallup Poll shows that fifty-nine percent of Americans agree that the “United States has accomplished its mission in Afghanistan and should bring its troops home.” He’s dead, Jim. And Congressional pressure is also growing – see this Washington Post item on those who favor “a swift reduction of U.S. forces” have been gaining momentum – there are more and more of them in the House and Senate.
And this is getting formal:
A significant part of this pressure to end the war is the introduction of the “Afghanistan Exit and Accountability Act” by Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Walter Jones (R-NC). H.R. 1735 was submitted with 14 additional sponsors, eight Democrats, and six Republicans. Ending the war is now a bipartisan effort. The legislation would require the president to submit a plan with a timeline and completion date for the transition of military operations to the Afghan government, and require quarterly progress reports along with projections of how much would be saved if the transition were completed in six months.
The narrative did change:
In his statement, Rep. McGovern said: “We’re told that we can’t afford vital domestic funding, but we should continue to borrow billions and billions of dollars for nation-building in Afghanistan. That’s nuts. … On Monday [May 2], the Pentagon reported that 1,550 American troops have died in Afghanistan. Last week, another one of my constituents was killed. Tens of thousands more have been wounded. … Enough is enough.”
Rep. Walter Jones’ opposition to this war has made him a modern profile of courage. He turned against the war after visiting constituents who lost their children, fathers, and mothers, as well as soldiers in the hospital whose lives have been forever shattered. He doesn’t think this war is worth their sacrifice. He is right.
So here’s what Wallis wants:
Although the president has committed to begin withdrawing troops in July, the military is working behind the scenes to make this withdrawal as small as possible. In their initial proposal, the military floated a news story suggesting a withdrawal of only 5,000 troops. This is not acceptable anymore, and we must insist on a clear, quick, and responsible exit – not one slowly drawn out over years. Too much money has been spent, and too many lives have been lost. It’s time for the war to end.
And the rest is a call for his folks, and everyone else, to contact members of Congress and urge them to co-sponsor this legislation. Things have changed.
Yes, the power of narrative is amazing. And in passing it should be noted that the Bush Administration’s failure to do much of anything at all about Osama bin Laden did serve them well, as a narrative. That kept us all in the state that was useful to the Bush crowd – with no resolution to the main narrative we’d remain feeling angry and aggrieved, and thus likely to agree with any old thing they wanted to do, just to keep us safe. That may have been a conscious decision. There was no political upside to resolving matters. Osama bin Laden couldn’t be killed or captured. You’d lose all your political leverage. These folks weren’t dumb.
But that hardly matters now. Bin Laden’s dead. Should we get out of Afghanistan? Congressional leaders of both parties are saying we should – and perhaps so are some advisers in the White House.
But Fred Kaplan says not so fast, reminding us that this isn’t a neat narrative:
There are certainly legitimate arguments for winding down the war or altering the strategy. But they have little to do with the fact that the leader of al-Qaida is sleeping with the fishes.
First, as critics of the war have pointed out in different contexts, many Taliban factions have no connection with al-Qaida. If Bin Laden wasn’t running or even much inspiring the insurgents in his lifetime, his abrupt demise isn’t likely to grind the fighting to a halt. (Then again, if his diaries and thumb drives prove that he really was in charge of the Afghan Taliban, this calculation changes enormously.)
Second, those Taliban leaders who did have personal ties with Bin Laden – for example, Mullah Omar – may now have less reason to fight on. The possibility is at the very least worth probing. But it’s not at all clear that rubbing out the godfather makes his capos more amenable to reconciling with the Western-backed Afghan government. Some of Mullah Omar’s deputies or ground commanders might now find the notion more alluring. But officials say they’ve seen no spurt of defections in the 10 days since the raid on Abbottabad.
But the main point here is that the war in Afghanistan has never been entirely about killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, even if it is a big deal that he’s been killed:
Al-Qaida has lost not merely a figurehead but its political and spiritual leader, the seemingly invincible embodiment of its whole mythic narrative. But the organization and its dream aren’t dead; its franchise managers, however splintered and paranoid, can still wreak much damage. More to the point, Afghanistan, in its current state, would very likely tumble into anarchy or civil war without the binding presence (however tenuous) of U.S. and NATO troops – and thus serve, again, as a sanctuary for terrorists. Of particular concern here are the most-militant jihadists, who could turn the lawless terrain into a cross-border expanse from which to plan and execute their ambitions in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
So we didn’t win much of anything, as that Osama fellow was only part of the picture:
This has been the real aim of the war, to the extent an aim has been articulated – to keep Afghanistan stable, at least to the point where the country can’t be taken over by forces intent on attacking others or fomenting upheaval in Pakistan. It’s maddening that Pakistan has done so little to quell this threat to its own survival. Or, to put it more precisely, it’s maddening that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are split into factions, some of whose interests are aligned with the jihadists – and that Pakistan’s civilian government is too weak to root out those elements. But this is the trap in which we find ourselves.
Yep, he’s dead, Jim, but so what?
The killing of Bin Laden would have momentous impact on the Afghan war – and on world politics – if some Pakistani leaders used the occasion to force systemic institutional reforms. Many countries’ leaders would be compelled to make vast changes if it were suddenly revealed that they’d been harboring the world’s most wanted mass murderer for five years – and that a foreign power can mount a military raid deep inside its borders without triggering the slightest detection, much less resistance. In just about any other country on earth, a leader would use this double embarrassment as an opportunity to clean house, chop heads, overhaul rival power networks.
But this is Pakistan, where the institutions suspected of harboring the mass murderer – and responsible for protecting borders – are in charge and in deep cahoots with the militant jihadists whose very existence jeopardizes the fate of the country. …
And so, the real potential “game-changer” of Bin Laden’s killing – that it might force the Pakistanis to break away from their darkest historical remnants and pursue a more civilized path – isn’t likely to happen.
So what we have here isn’t a neat and tidy Star Trek episode, and things are just geopolitically complicated:
This is the case not just because the military and the Islamists share the same power base, but also because the Taliban are a useful tool in Pakistan’s rivalry with India. Pakistanis view India as a much greater threat to their national survival than the Taliban or even al-Qaida. They continue to support certain elements of the Taliban – they want these elements to thrive in Afghanistan – in order to maintain a policy of “strategic depth” against what they see as their larger enemy. Should India invade (and there have been a few wars between the two countries since the 1947 partition), a friendly Afghanistan would be a strategic reserve. In the meantime, a strong Taliban helps counter India’s efforts to create a presence in Afghanistan – in other words, helps to pre-empt India’s encirclement of Pakistan.
And obviously the death of Osama Bin Laden doesn’t affect any of that.
So Kaplan sees what is happening:
Domestic political pressures are building for President Barack Obama to speed up his plans to get out of Afghanistan. In December 2009, when Obama announced his plans to send in an extra 30,000 troops (on top of the 24,000 he added the previous March), he also said that he would begin to withdraw some of them by July 2011. (More recently, NATO announced that all troops would come out by the end of 2014.) With the magic date just two months away, the debate has begun over just how many U.S. troops – out of the current 100,000 – Obama should withdraw and how many of those should be combat troops. Many are arguing that Obama should use the killing of Osama as an excuse (as Sen. George Aiken once proposed that President Lyndon Johnson do in the early years of the Vietnam War) to “declare victory and get out.”
It must be tempting. The war’s costs, in dollars and lives, are exorbitant. Despite the tactical victories that Gen. David Petraeus is racking up, the broader counterinsurgency strategy – which involves “winning hearts and minds” in order to get the Afghan people to support their government – doesn’t seem to be working, not least because the Afghan government is too corrupt or incompetent to earn their trust. …
But if it matters to U.S. interests how the war ends – whither Afghanistan and its effects on the broader region – then it’s a bad idea simply to walk away. And it’s fairly clear that the outcome does matter to U.S. interests.
Well yes, Pakistan and India are nuclear powers, with a long history of serious confrontation, and a regional nuclear war would be beyond catastrophic. We might want to help make that less likely. And Afghanistan is in play here – and none of that mattered to Osama Bin Laden. The whole matter seems to have never been on his mind at all. He was out to get us, for all sorts of reasons. And he’s gone – fine and dandy. But that’s only the close of one narrative. The other larger narrative is still open and unresolved.
But Kaplan also argues that all this doesn’t mean we should necessarily stay the course:
We are getting out, if not in two months then (officially) in three years. All the players – the Afghan government, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Afghan people – are already behaving in anticipation of our departure. So we should, first of all, recognize that fact and make the most of it.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai must be extremely nervous that Obama will do what many in Congress, and some in the White House, are hoping – cite Bin Laden’s death as an excuse to go home. So we should exploit this situation, use it as leverage to get Karzai to step up reforms, especially to take meaningful steps toward ending corruption. As every U.S. leader has publicly stated, from Obama on down to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the entire military chain of command, even the most effective military campaign will have little effect if the Afghan people regard their government as illegitimate.
Good luck with that, but some good can come of this one guy being dead:
Commanders and diplomats should exploit whatever fissures Bin Laden’s death might have opened up – not just between the various Taliban factions but, more, between the insurgent commanders, who tend to lounge in the shelters of Pakistan, and the foot soldiers bleeding on the battlefields of Afghanistan. It’s unclear at this point whether a diplomatic settlement is possible, or what it would look like – but it’s time to start seriously crafting its foundations.
It’s also time for a serious diplomatic push outside Afghan borders. Early in his presidency, Obama recognized that this problem was regional in nature – and that the solution would have to be, too. The late Richard Holbrooke coined the term “AfPak,” to suggest its scope, but stopped short of AfPakInd, which captures things more fully. The leaders of India were the obstacle here, insisting that they be left out of any regional package, wanting to be dealt with individually, on their own terms, as the world’s largest, and one of its fastest-growing, democracies. They had a point, but it’s time to bunch the three countries together anyway, at least in a security forum, and perhaps to include Russia, China, and other interested parties as well. This is difficult, maybe close to impossible. But without dealing with this dimension, the problem won’t be solved.
But that leads back to the question of our troops in Afghanistan:
The fact is that the United States needs leverage in order to apply the necessary pressure (to get Karzai moving on reform, the Pakistanis and Indians to get moving on détente, and the other regional and global powers to offer security guarantees, economic incentives, or whatever a peaceful arrangement requires) – and we will have no leverage if everyone thinks we’re getting out quickly.
It’s a delicate matter: holding out the possibility of a rapid pullout, to exert leverage on some fronts – while demonstrating a continued presence, and keeping up the military pressure, to exert leverage on other fronts. Maybe Obama’s new national-security team – especially Ryan Crocker, the incoming ambassador in Kabul – can juggle all these swords. Maybe it’s just not possible.
That’s not very cheery, but it’s better than the other alternatives – “keep doing what we’ve been doing and stay there forever while the regional politics continue to stagnate, or just get out and watch it all crumble.”
And Kaplan adds this:
This is what the real debate should be about: what we want Afghanistan and its surroundings to look like in, say, five years – and how best to make that so. Anything else is a distracting cop-out.
Or it’s a bad episode of Star Trek.
But of course we make sense of our world by telling stories – conflict, climax, and then denouement – as that is comforting. The world should be like that, and we pretend it is. Osama bin Laden is dead and the story ends. But the story never ends, does it?