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What Robert McFarlane Still Doesn’t Know About Afghanistan

John McCain's point man on Afghanistan is Robert "Bud" McFarlane, an Iran-Contra holdover who, sadly, hasn't learned much about the Middle East since the 80's, argues Josh Strawn.

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March 7, 2008 - 12:25 am

Just about a month ago, a small but significant meeting took place in Washington that should have garnered more attention. The Afghanistan Advocacy Group, a coalition of Afghan Americans and Americans founded to enrich communication between concerned citizens and U.S. and Afghan policymakers, invited the foreign policy advisers of major presidential contenders to discuss their candidates’ positions on security and development in the war-torn country. Advisers for McCain, Huckabee, and Obama accepted the invitation, but among the newcomers, it was a familiar face that stood out most.

Anybody who remembers the 1980s couldn’t miss Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Iran-Contra celeb extraordinaire, who spoke on behalf of the McCain campaign. McFarlane was like a soft-spoken elephant in the room asking to be let back into the china shop (or the South Asia shop in the this case). Since he served as National Security adviser to Ronald Reagan during the salad days of radical Islamic terrorism, McFarlane even knew personally some of the men who were attacked in the infamous Hezbollah bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon.

All of the participants including McFarlane at least agreed on certain basic points, mainly the idea that what is most needed in Afghanistan is ongoing and increased military support and an integrated plan to bring political and economic stability. But watching the videos of the event, one hears a familiar narrative of Cold War triumphalism from the McCain camp that isn’t altogether unproblematic: America was right to support the Afghans against the Soviets, our only crime was withdrawal. McFarlane talks about his “sense of debt and betrayal, by our country, of Afghanistan” and says that, “we withdrew, ignoring the scale of loss and sacrifice this country had experienced on our behalf.” This is fair enough on many counts. Debt, betrayal, and sacrifice have been the lot of the Afghan people in their battle against communism. But where American involvement is concerned, unpacking the words “on our behalf” and “this country” reveals a great deal of messy complexity under the gloss.

The war that was waged against communism in Afghanistan has a long history that extends beyond what was done “on our behalf.” It started as a rebellion of Afghans against Afghans — against the Khalq party led by Nur Muhammad Taraki, a careless zealot who thought that Afghan society would be as enamored of Marxist orthodoxy as he was. Later, it was a battle against invading Soviets who hoped that the Khalqi regime would become a permanent Soviet satellite in the region. The Afghan resistance considered it a holy duty to resist foreign invaders, the struggle was deemed a jihad by many who fought, and its fighters were the mujahideen.

Most Afghan Muslims followed the Hanafi tradition in Islam which is the oldest, most liberal, and places the most emphasis on reason. But as foreign money filtered into the war, different investors demanded different kinds of repayment. When the Reagan administration asked King Fahd to bring Saudi money into the fight, it helped bring Wahhabi extremism into the equation.

Wahhabi Arabs filtered into Afghanistan, bringing with them a rigid tradition of Islam and adding an element to the struggle beyond that of Afghans protecting their sovereignty from the bloodstained boot-heels of Soviet totalitarianism. They used the Afghan land as a testing ground, and it was there that the extremist movement now referred to by some as globalized Islamofacism developed its international character.

While there were some Afghans who had an affinity for extremism, most of the Afghan mujahideen fighters were not easily disposed to foreign Wahhabi presence or ideology. The tactics of the Arabs were known to be exceptionally brutal and their ideas often clashed with Afghan culture and common Afghan understandings of the Koran. One could no longer say that the mujahideen strictly represented “this country” of Afghanistan in its fight against tyranny. The mujahideen had become a patchwork of Afghan national resistance and ideological elements, the latter of which were as foreign to peace and national liberation as they were to the Afghan people themselves. It should be at least mildly disturbing that McFarlane’s years of first-hand experience with Islamic extremism has not yet taught him to speak more specifically.

Leaving aside for a moment his shady comments about Afghan history and American involvement in it, McFarlane says of the present that Afghanistan policy under McCain will offer “more resources, more troops, better command and control,” than what we’ve seen in recent years and that they intend to “go after the narcotics problem.” But that “problem” wouldn’t need be thought of as such if old-fangled conservatives could stop thinking in terms of Reagan’s War on Drugs and, as Christopher Hitchens has suggested, notice the gaping market demand for pharmaceutical painkillers that could be produced legally with Afghan opium.

McFarlane cites a major failure in Afghanistan strategy as the reliance on its weak central government and proposes “channeling our assistance down to tribal leaders, down to village chiefs where there is a measure of pluralism.” When he uses words like “tribal leaders,” “village chiefs,” and “pluralism,” he might take care to explain why we should trust that they aren’t as slipshod as his usage of other terms — why, in other words we should not also see the word “warlord” when he says “village chief,” and how the pluralism to which he refers will be different from the “pluralism” that we saw among competing parties of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s.

If a new approach is what’s needed in Afghanistan — as most on both sides of the partisan divide seem to agree — it’s hard to see how McCain is offering anything markedly different from the disastrous policies of the last two decades. If American efforts are intended to purge the region of what the Wahhabis brought to the Afghan war, it hardly seems sensible to ask the person who helped bring those elements for advice. Especially when he doesn’t show any signs of having developed the ability to distinguish a national liberation movement from the fascistic forces that co-opted it.

It looks more probable each day that John McCain will be competing with Barack Obama for the presidency, a contest where McCain will undoubtedly assert experience as a primary virtue which he possesses and which Obama, unarguably, does not. AAG’s summit on Afghanistan gives one the impression that, if this is the brand of experience he plans to bring to the War on Terror, perhaps McCain should find a different selling point.

Josh Strawn is a musician and writer in New York. His band is <a href=”http://www.listofblack.com”Blacklist.

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