Turning point in Afghanistan

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(Host) The war in Iraq has been compared to conflicts in both Vietnam and Lebanon, but recent events have reminded commentator David Moats of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

(Moats) We have arrived at a turning point. The optimism with which the United States launched its war in Iraq has been shaken by the attacks, the kidnappings, the battles of recent days.

Of course, not everyone was full of optimism. A lot of people thought that launching an invasion with the idea of remaking a foreign nation smacked of high-level hubris.

That isn’t to say there weren’t legitimate, or at least defensible, reasons for invading Iraq. One of the best cases has been made by liberal author Paul Berman, who wrote in The New York Times that it’s essential for the West to stand up to fascistic Islamic radicalism.

But even if there were good reasons to try, it was always going to be hard to bring off. The Bush administration had to do almost everything right for it to work. Now things are going wrong, as they tend to do, which is an outcome not usually anticipated by those in the grip of hubris. In fact, things have been going wrong for a long time, which should have occasioned a bit of humility among our policymakers.

All you need to do is read Steve Coll’s new book, “Ghost Wars,” about the CIA’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to understand the things that have been going wrong. There were lots of good reasons for fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, but in doing so the CIA made an unholy alliance with the intelligence services of both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, creating a whole infrastructure of Islamic radicalism. Osama bin Laden was part of it. Oops. Things go wrong.

President Bush held a press conference last week, but he had no answers about what happens next in Iraq. That was a little unsettling. So we seem to be at a turning point. We either become like the Russians, obliterating the place just to show how tough we are, or we adopt a policy that acknowledges past errors and reaches out for help.

Acknowledging errors is not President Bush’s strong suit. But somehow we, along with our allies and the United Nations, have to find Iraqis who can take charge without resorting to dictatorship, extremism, and violence.

That is the turning point at which we have arrived. The Vietnam analogy has been trundled out in recent days, and in many ways the analogy is far from accurate. But I keep thinking of the phrase used in the title of David Halberstam’s book, “The Best and the Brightest.” President Kennedy had gathered together a group of bright, young, ambitious people who thought they could do anything, including transforming the corrupt neo-colonial remnant of Vietnam into an Asian democracy. Oops.

Our latest “best and brightest” include a number of people who appear impervious to criticism and untouched by humility. They have placed us in a difficult spot. But we have no choice. We have to get it right. And we have to start doing it soon.

This is David Moats of Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald, and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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