The violent response to accidental Koran burning once again drives home the perils of nation-building.
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In fact, there are reasons why Afghans might hate Americans. Even then U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal admitted that at checkpoints “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.” Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled to Pakistan and more than 300,000 have been displaced within their own nation. While the Taliban is primarily responsible for the human carnage, Americans and Europeans are outsiders, who rarely have been welcomed fondly by people determined to govern themselves.
However, the latest round of violence was just another instance of hateful intolerance. Six years ago Kabul sentenced to death a Christian convert. Under Western pressure the Karzai government released the man on a technicality and allowed him to emigrate. Christians and other religious minorities receive none of the respect that Afghan Muslims demand for themselves. Indeed, there is no freedom of religious conscience even for Afghans in Afghanistan.
The situation was worse under the Taliban, but that is scant comfort today. In its latest assessment Freedom House reported: “Religious freedom has improved since the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001, but it is still hampered by violence and harassment aimed at religious minorities and reformist Muslims.”
The group Open Doors ranked Afghanistan number 2 on its latest “World Watch List,” up a spot from last year. Afghanistan outranked even Saudi Arabia and Iran in persecution. Explained Open Doors: “the situation remains desolate, especially for minority groups, including the small Christian community. Despite having signed all international agreements designed to protect the freedom of religion, the government in the current setting is not even able to guarantee the most basic tenants of this right. On the contrary, being recognized as a Christian immediately places any believer in a very difficult position.”
In its most recent report the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom concluded simply: “Conditions for religious freedom remain exceedingly poor for minority religious communities and dissenting members of the majority faith, despite the presence of U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan for almost 10 years and the substantial investment of lives, resources, and expertise by the United States and the international community.” Recently “the small and vulnerable Christian community experienced a spike in government arrests, with Christians being detained and some jailed for the ‘crime’ of apostasy.”
Last year’s State Department assessment of international religious liberty offered a similarly negative assessment. Noted State: “The constitution and other laws and policies restrict religious freedom and, in practice, the government enforced these restrictions.” Respect for religious liberty is on the decline, “particularly for Christian groups and individuals.” Moreover, “Negative societal opinion and suspicion of Christian activities led to targeting of Christian groups and individuals, including Muslim converts to Christianity. The lack of government responsiveness and protection for these groups and individuals contributed to the deterioration of religious freedom.”
Members of this society are lecturing Americans about the latter’s lack of “respect” for the former’s religious beliefs.
THE LATEST ROUND of violence should cause Americans to reflect on what Afghanistan is and is likely to become. U.S. foreign policy cannot be based solely on the perceived worthiness of those being defended, but presidential contender Newt Gingrich made an important point when he declared that Washington shouldn’t risk “the life of a single American… in a country whose religious fanatics are trying to kill us and whose government seems to be on the side of the fanatics.”
The U.S. and its allies entered Afghanistan to fight terrorism. That job has been completed. Al Qaeda is a wreck and its remnant operates elsewhere, including next door in Pakistan. Afghanistan has become irrelevant to protecting Americans from terrorist attack.
It still would be best if possible to leave an Afghan government capable of protecting its people from the worst depredations of the Taliban. To that end the U.S. and NATO have constructed at great cost Afghan security forces that are more capable than in the past, but which continue to suffer from debilitating deficiencies — many privately admitted by allied personnel on the ground.
The biggest problem remains the Afghan government, however. Even allied officials who have increasing confidence in the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police express frustration with the Karzai government. However impressive the official façade, the reality behind looks very different — rather like in South Vietnam decades ago. Will even well-trained Afghan security personnel be willing to die for the regime in Kabul when the allies depart?
Remaking Afghan society is a hopeless task. Social engineering is hard enough at home. Doing so abroad is far more difficult, especially when many Afghans are ready to kill when offended by those who believe differently than them. The problem runs far deeper than the loss of mutual trust between Afghans and allies, as some observers suggest. Afghan society may — and hopefully will — eventually evolve in a more humane direction, but it will do so on Afghanistan’s, not America’s, schedule.
Indeed, violent intolerance pervades the Muslim world. Not all Islamic states persecute — Turkey and some of the small Gulf kingdoms are more tolerant places — but Islam joins Communism as the two most accurate predictors that a government will suppress religious liberty. And Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan top any list of religious persecutors.
American foreign policy cannot be focused on promoting religious liberty abroad. However, to the extent that promoting human rights remains a basic U.S. goal, Washington should advance respect for freedom of religion. Moreover, the lack of a shared commitment to the value of the life, dignity, and conscience of the human person makes some partnerships difficult if not impossible. As perhaps in Afghanistan.
Americans should wish the Afghan people well. But Washington cannot turn Afghans into Americans. The latest round of Islamic violence in Afghanistan alone is not enough to pronounce the U.S. counter-insurgency mission to be a failure. However, the killings highlight the perils of nation-building. And they entitle the American people to ask: Why are we still in Afghanistan?
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?