I see an interesting juxtaposition between two news stories published in the past 24 hours. The first, a piece in yesterday's New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise reporting from Mingora, Pakistan, relates how the women in this Swat Valley city had to put on burqas when the Taliban took control, and then were able to take them off when the Talbian were driven out by a military operation. The second story, in today's Times, tells us that Obama is considering a strategy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan, cutting the number of American troops and focusing more on rooting out al-Qaeda and less on trying to defeat the Taliban (this is reportedly Joe Biden's idea.)
As the White House debates the issue, it is hard for any compassionate person to not feel torn by the dilemma the West is facing. The Taliban is a horrible, oppressive, brutal collection of men who richly deserved to be sent to their rewards (except, perhaps, those young men who have been suckered by the ideology of its leaders and might eventually be convinced to change their views of the world.) And yet they are not going to be defeated by Western military might, as has become increasingly clear. So what will defeat them? Other than those who have signed up for the joke called the "Afghan Army," mostly for the pay, where are the Afghan men willing to take up arms and fight the Taliban in the name of freedom? Where are the Afghan women who would rather take up arms and maybe die rather than put on a burqa?
Perhaps they are out there, waiting in the wings. But until and unless the U.S. and its NATO allies leave the fighting to the Afghans, we will never know. And the Afghans will not have to make this choice for themselves. Perhaps we are afraid that they will choose the Taliban after all?
It may sound callous, but the lessons of Iraq tell us that Western paternalism has its limits, and its terrible costs.