Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | February 2, 2009

The Short Long Way

Today in The Washington Post/Newsweek blog PostGlobal, Fareed Zakaria writes:

The war in Afghanistan is not going well; almost all trends are moving in the wrong direction. But we still have time to focus, improve our strategy, calibrate our means. It will help immeasurably if we keep in mind the basic objective of U.S. policy: “Our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and its allies,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week. That is an admirably clear statement.

It is not that we don’t have other goals — education, female literacy, centralized control of government services, drug eradication, liberal democracy. But Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest and most war-torn countries. At best, many of these objectives will be realized partially, over very long periods, and they should not be measured as part of military campaigns or political cycles. They are also goals not best achieved by military force. The U.S. Army is being asked to do enough in Afghanistan. Helping it to stay focused on a core mission is neither cramped nor defeatist but realistic.

All the pieces are there, but he’s not putting them together the right way.  He says Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, yet apparently doesn’t make the connection between that and making educational goals a priority.  He says it’s one of the world’s most war-torn countries, yet doesn’t connect that to the goals of centralized control of government services and liberal democracy.  He says that goals like female literacy and drug eradication are not best achieved by military force (true, that!!) but doesn’t make the leap to finding other means to achieve them instead.  The presumption that the military is the answer is so strong, because when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  The stated goal, to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists etc., is best – no, can only be – achieved exactly by achieving all of the other things he lists.  As long as those other things remain unmet, violence and extremism are inevitable.  The proverb, “there is a long way that is short, and a short way that is long”, applies here.  Sending our military over there to “stop the terrorists” appears to be the most direct way to accomplish that, while education, legitimate government, and drug eradication seem almost insurmountable, i.e., “that would take too long”.  But when the short means don’t lead to the desired end, you’ll get there quicker using the “long” means that actually do reach the desired end.

One telling of the parable on the short long way can be found here.


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