Another Perspective

Misunderstanding Afghanistan

Public reaction to the Afghan convert case reveals contradictions in U.S. policy.

By 3.28.06

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The case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert to Christianity, illustrates the pitfalls of emphasizing Wilsonian humanitarianism over vital security interests in American defense and foreign policy. Ideas, as they say, have consequences. And the current rhetoric of democratization as the paramount objective of American foreign policy has confused the American public, instead of clarifying for them, what is at stake in Afghanistan.

Americans were justifiably outraged that judicial authorities in Afghanistan considered executing Rahman for his act of conscience and are genuinely relieved that he has been spared execution at the hands of an allied government. They believed that they did not go to war in that remote region for the purposes of enshrining a regime of retrograde religious persecution and disregard of human rights generally. This is not what democratization was supposed to be.

Unfortunately, most Americans have forgotten that they did not, in fact, go to war in Afghanistan to promote democracy, liberate women, promote religious freedom, or for any other humanitarian purpose. They sent their crack military forces there to destroy the terrorists responsible for destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th and the regime that sheltered and sustained them.

This historical and political amnesia on the part of our citizenry may be forgiven them for the reason that the very concept of a realistic foreign policy and a punitive military response to terrorism has been overshadowed by incessant rhetoric, emanating from both liberal and conservative theorists, which portrays American interventions abroad as rooted in a universal, categorical imperative to bring democracy American-style to the farthest reaches of the globe. Overshadowed are the more prosaic reasons of defending our country against enemies from abroad through their destruction in detail.

The demands of nation-building in Afghanistan were the by-product, not the primary objective, of our military and security mission in that former haven for al Qaeda and their state hosts, the Taliban.

The exceedingly harsh reality is that, no matter how backward the current regime, or the entire society for that matter, it is in our self-interest as Americans to see to it that a stable regime, aligned with our national interests, remain in power in Afghanistan so as to avoid creating a vacuum that would allow the Taliban to return bringing with them al Qaeda.

Indeed, the stabilization of Afghanistan is no sure thing. Some observers believe that the Taliban will commence a spring offensive to regain some measure of control at least in the provinces bordering Pakistan. American soldiers are still being killed there at an alarming rate. The opium production is accelerating and promised foreign aid donations are a fraction of what was pledged. Hamid Karzai is the first popularly elected president, and he is confronting the dark side of Tocqueville's "tyranny of the majority" in the Rahman case.

These trade-offs in the national security interest are not unprecedented. Roosevelt and Churchill did not think twice about their strategic partnership of necessity with Stalin to destroy the immediate scourges of Hitlerism and Nazism. A contemporary example is our willingness to accord privileges of trade, commerce, and investment to China which persecutes minorities, religions, and forces abortions on any couple that might dare to have more than one child. We tolerate these abuses in order to enjoy the economic benefits while keeping a watchful geopolitical eye on this rising power in the world. We count on economic liberalization and a growing middle class to engender political liberalization in the long run.

By all means, let us show our outrage over the abuse of religious freedom evidenced by the theocracy in Afghanistan. Let us hector them and pressure them with every financial and diplomatic incentive or disincentive. And let those of us who are Christians pray that the blood of martyrs will strengthen the Church in its persecution there.

But, at the end of the day, we need a stable, Muslim Afghan regime more than it needs us. Absent such a regime, all our blood and treasure expended in that country will have been for naught.

The great danger is that the American public might conclude that we have the luxury of not supporting the current regime in Afghanistan if horrible incidents, such as the Rahman affair, are repeated in the future. Given their expectation, taught to them by numerous leaders, including the President himself, that ours is first and foremost a mission to bring enlightenment values and democracy to every land and nation, they may waver in their commitment to securing their nation's defense in that far corner of the world.

In that region our choices are limited and our friends are few. Pakistan, an "ally" in the war on terrorism, has been an exporter of technology of mass destruction throughout the world. Our alliance there depends on one leader, General Pervez Musharaff, the president, who was educated in Christian schools and has been the target of several assassination attempts.

The tragedy of Abdul Rahman has crystallized the inherent conflict between an over-moralizing foreign policy and one that is grounded in a realistic regard for American national interest. This is not a conflict between morality and immorality. Rather, it is a failure to recognize the role of prudence in ordering the affairs of a great nation that must look to its own interest before it can attend to those of others.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.