“How to lose me in the first two sentences of your column on Afghanistan,” by Fareed Zakaria:

It is time to get real about Afghanistan. Withdrawal is not a serious option.

There is that “serious” word, again. I wouldn’t put myself in the “get out now” camp, but every “serious” person I know is seriously considering that option. In logic, Zakaria has committed the cardinal sin we call begging the question. To make this clear, we might pose a question:

Despite the massive investment the United States, NATO, the European Union and others have made in stabilizing Afghanistan over the past eight years, should they abandon it because the Taliban is proving a tougher foe than anticipated?

To which, Zakaria responds:

The United States, NATO, the European Union and others have invested massively in stabilizing that country over the past eight years, and they should not abandon it because the Taliban is proving a tougher foe than anticipated.

You hear people misuse the term ‘begging the question’ all the time. They use to it convey the idea that a certain piece of information calls for some additional information. For example, you might say that all the clogged traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway begs the question of whether or not another lane can be built to ease congestion. That usage is becoming so commonplace as to be accepted, but it’s wrong. Begging the question literally means something more like: rather than answering the question, you appealed to me to accept the question as settled. So, if I ask you whether God exists, you tell me that God exists because the Bible says that He exists. If I ask you if it is wise to leave Afghanistan despite all we have invested there, you tell me we must stay because of all we have invested there.

Once you beg the question in the first sentences of your essay, I know that you are making a fallacious argument. Why should I read on? But I did read on, until I came to this bit of advice:

Buying, renting or bribing Pashtun tribes should become the centerpiece of America’s stabilization strategy, as it was Britain’s when it ruled Afghanistan.

That worked out so well for the British, that we undoubtedly should prove our seriousness by giving it a second try.

[In 1842] more than 16,000 people had set out on the retreat from Kabul, and in the end only one man, Dr. William Brydon, a British Army surgeon, had made it alive to Jalalabad. The garrison there lit signal fires and sounded bugles to guide other British survivors to safety, but after several days they realized that Brydon would be the only one. It was believed the Afghans let him live so he could tell the grisly story.

If Zakaria cannot hear the echoes of Gandamak, I wonder if he can hear the echoes of the Kennedy administration’s 1963 debate over the fate of Ngo Dinh Diem.

U.S. officials should stop trashing Karzai. We have no alternative. Afghanistan needs a Pashtun leader; Karzai is a reasonably supportive one. Let’s assume the charges of corruption and vote rigging against him are true. Does anyone really think his successor would be any more honest and efficient?

It’s precisely because Karzai’s government is incompetent and corrupt, and because no alternative government is likely to be notably better, that ‘serious’ people are asking whether it might not be best to get out of the occupation business.

Yet, for all Zakaria’s lack of sense of historical irony, his recommendations are probably more sensible than a simple escalation of troops with no exit strategy.

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