Better answers for Afghanistan

Saturday, October 31, 2009

I agree with many of former Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh's criticisms of the international effort in Afghanistan ["U.S. official resigns over Afghan war," front page, Oct. 27], particularly our failures to demand that the Afghan government address corruption and, relatedly, to give non-ideological insurgents incentives to stop planting roadside bombs. That said, I don't agree with Mr. Hoh that there is nothing here worth fighting for.

Our divergent conclusions are no doubt the products of our experiences. Mr. Hoh watched close friends die in Iraq and was then assigned to Zabul, a province that can make Kandahar and Helmand look like Disney World. I watched close friends write textbooks in Palo Alto, Calif., and then volunteered for Kabul, a province where I am greeted at work every day by cheerful, 18- to 30-year-old Afghan men and women eager to bring peace, stability and, yes, even democracy to their troubled country.

Is my experience typical? No. But from what I understand, neither is Mr. Hoh's. Most of Afghanistan is still somewhere between the Kabul bubble and the Zabul blunder, skeptical of embracing foreign troops but loath to return to life under the Taliban.

It is this undecided majority that represents our ever-shrinking window of opportunity. If those people can be convinced that a democratic government is their best bet for a brighter future, a more stable Afghanistan and a more secure world seem achievable. If not, we will have wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives. But we're not at that point yet. As long as the undecided majority remains undecided, there's some hope, some possibility and something here worth fighting for.

Benjamin Joseloff, Kabul

The writer is a fellow at the Afghanistan Legal Education Project.

Matthew Hoh's conclusion that the Afghanistan campaign is not in our national interest evoked a response from his superiors reminiscent of the 16th-century church's initial thoughts about Martin Luther -- make him a cardinal to keep him quiet. Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is, as we might expect, just a bit more subtle. He suggests that the best place to get anything done is "inside the building" because it's difficult to have much political impact outside of it.

Mr. Holbrooke's many burdens include advancing democracy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We all acknowledge his talents, but clearly the time has come to send him to a university for a rapid refresher course in American history -- with emphasis on the role of public debate in our own conception of democracy.

Norman Birnbaum, Washington

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