The Debate

Outspoken on Afghanistan

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The Debate

Outspoken on Afghanistan

As U.S. presidential candidates discuss Afghan policy, a new report has some sensible insights into conflict.

Newt Gingrich may effectively be skipping tomorrow’s key contests in the Republican primary, but he still managed to stay in the news today with some outspoken remarks on Afghanistan.

“We are not going to fix Afghanistan. It is not possible,” Gingrich said at a campaign event in Nashville, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “…this is a real problem. And there are some problems where you have to say, ‘You know, you are going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life…because you clearly don’t want to learn from me how to be unmiserable.’ And that is what you are going to see happen.”

One of the problems, of course, is that having tried to “fix” the problem of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by arming the mujahedeen, the United States did indeed walk away from its involvement, leaving Afghanistan to live its own “miserable life.” And we all know how that ended.

I’m not suggesting a massive open ended commitment to the country, but the idea that the United States can simply wash its hands of Afghanistan and damn the consequences, appealing as this might sound in presidential campaigns, also makes for troubling foreign policy. Sure, the United States can walk away, but candidates need to be honest about the fact that there are consequences to doing so. (That said, the latest revelations vis-a-vis Pakistan’s intelligence service that have appeared courtesy of WikiLeaks must make U.S. policymakers wish they could just walk away, because Islamabad is making itself the poster child of governments that don’t want to make their people “unmiserable”).

Regardless, Safer World, a London-based NGO, has a report out today that looks at why exactly it’s so important for governments and donors to tackle conflict. I was sent a copy of the full report over the weekend (it’s also supposed to be downloadable from their site here, although I’ve been told they are having a few technical difficulties), and it’s well worth a look, not least because of the topicality of the angle it takes, namely China’s role in four conflict-ridden states: Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sudan and South Sudan.

“It is now understood that the security concerns and development needs of conflict-affected states require from the international community special attention and differentiated aid approaches,” the report notes. “Less discussed is the assumption in much of the conflict prevention discourse that this international community is composed of like-minded actors with global leverage and legitimacy in the countries in which they intervene.China’s growing prominence as a global actor compels a re-examination of these assumptions.”

The report argues that China’s approach to development and peace building “diverges in significant ways” from other countries, especially those in the West. “This is not simply to assert that China’s involvement in, and engagement with, developing and conflict-affected countries is necessarily inimical to a ‘Western’ approach – nor all that different to some established donor practice. Rather, China’s growing presence in these countries suggests the need for a more careful understanding of Chinese perspectives and approaches.”

It’s well worth a read for its nuanced approach to the issue, and is a good antidote for anyone tiring of some of the meaningless (and, one hopes, unmeant) foreign policy rhetoric being generated by the presidential campaign. Today’s meme is the rather silly criticism of Barack Obama for apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the supposedly inadvertent burning at a U.S. air base of a pile of Korans. Expect this affected outrage every time Obama suggests apologizing for anything overseas, or dares imply that any country besides the United States may have something of merit to offer the rest of the world.