Cultural Change by Military Intervention?

If you want to change the structure of Afghan society permanently, you have to wage all out war.

The bottom line after seven years of U.S. troop presence in Iraq and a short but bloody war: One brutal, genocidal dictator who invaded two of his neighbors (Iran and Kuwait) was toppled and executed. The iron fist with which he suppressed Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds was removed, and the factional struggles are now free to proceed unimpeded, as the frequent suicide bomb attacks there show. Still, there’s a semblance of governmental cohesion, at least for now, and if there’s no real democracy, there at least seems to be a balance of interests. The sort of “freedom” the Bush administration wanted, however, remains elusive. Today’s Iraq is like all the other countries in the region (Israel excepted): a societal model based on religious dominance, on intolerance of other classes and groups, on the use of force to solve problems and on the concept of a “great leader.”

The Iraq adventure embarked upon by the Bush ideologues proved only that which should have already been common knowledge (and what critics of the invasion had been saying all along): Western concepts of democracy, constitutional government, universal civil rights (especially women’s rights), government by consensus and rejection of the idea that might makes right — these cannot be imposed on a different political culture; especially not with a war followed by nothing else.

Whether Bush and his conservative ideologues were really that interested in women’s rights and a tolerant society in Iraq is debatable. The common Marxist view of the war is that they only wanted Iraq’s oil. The neoconservative ideologues certainly didn’t want to replace a half-mad despot like Saddam with Muslim fanatics. But that, in effect, is exactly what they accomplished in much of Iraq.

Bush and his crowd wanted to change the Middle East according to the American concept. That has been a total failure; it’s more accurate to say that it accomplished only the strengthening of Iran’s influence in the region.

That raises two questions: First, the basic question of whether deeply rooted social structures can be changed with military action. Germany and Japan, both of which became outstanding, halfway functioning democracies after their total defeat, aren’t very applicable examples in today’s situation. In order to change the societal structure permanently in Afghanistan, one (i.e., the West) would have to wage total war, pulverize every last pocket of resistance and occupy the country with hundreds of thousands of troops for decades, while simultaneously providing the most massive economic aid ever seen and carrying out “re-education” programs as it did in Germany and Japan after World War II.

Impossible. Such an enormous effort will simply never take place in Afghanistan or other countries like Afghanistan. The best result anyone can hope for there is to more or less keep the insurgents in check to prevent them from taking the whole country over as the Taliban once did. The remainder is targeted anti-terrorism action using covert intelligence and special military forces. Barack Obama’s entire presidency will depend, among other things, on whether or not this minimum goal can be achieved. But in all probability, Afghanistan is no longer even America’s (and the world’s) biggest problem. It’s Pakistan, the next failed state to be threatened by radical Muslim extremism.

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