This is the second part of a five-part series on Barack Obama’s Middle East. Yesterday, Part I covered the so-called War on Terror. Today, in Part II, the subject is Afghanistan and Pakistan. The series will continue all week.
During the last three months of 2008, I spent a lot of time interviewing many of Barack Obama’s advisers on Afghanistan and Pakistan. To summarize their collective view: the war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily. Instead, it will require a combination of military power, state building, training of the Afghan National Army, economic support and development aid, regional diplomacy (including Iran, India, and Russia), and negotiations with “reconcilable” elements of the Taliban-led insurgency. But, they argue, it is impossible at present to conduct useful talks with even moderate components of the Taliban, because the Taliban believes that it is winning the war. Thus, Obama’s advisers say, a military surge is necessary not to “win” the war in Afghanistan but to stabilize the situation and to convince the Islamist insurgent leaders to come to the bargaining table. (Take a look at my piece in The Nation, “Obama’s Afghan Dilemma.”)
It is a dangerously flawed strategy. And it is one that could unravel Obama’s presidency.
So far, Obama has not outlined a formal strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by all accounts he will conduct a detailed review of the war during his first months in office. That leaves at least some hope that Obama will change course. Sadly, however, he has committed himself to an escalation of the war, and it will be exceedingly difficult to dissuade the Obama administration from making the mistake the president-elect seems determined to make. He’s already compounded his poor decision to retain Robert Gates as secretary of defense by keeping George Bush’s Iraq-Afghanistan coordinator, General Douglas Lute, as the new White House’s National Security Council coordinator for America’s two wars. It’s not encouraging as a sign of new thinking.
So what are the flaws in Obama’s emerging plan?
First, it is incorrect to portray the war in Afghanistan in such dire terms that an immediate military escalation, or “surge,” is needed to prevent a Saigon-style collapse of Kabul. Under current circumstances, the United States cannot defeat the Taliban and its allies, nor can it take control of the large swaths of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban is in control. By the same token, the Taliban cannot capture Kabul, and it cannot overrun US and Afghan military bases. The war is essentially stalemated. Therefore, if Obama’s foreign policy team believes that it needs a few months, or more, to conduct a review of US strategy in the war in Afghanistan, it has plenty of time. There is no military logic behind the need for more troops to stabilize Afghanistan during such a review.
Second, in all of the literature, speeches, and thinktank papers on Afghanistan, there has not been a single cogent explanation of how additional US and NATO forces can be deployed to make strategic gains in the conflict. Perhaps Obama and his military commanders plan to develop a deployment strategy during their first months in office. But to announce plans to add as many as 30,000 US troops — doubling the US force — over the next year is a classic example of “shoot first, aim later.” If Obama truly believes that tens of thousands more US troops can turn the tide in Afghanistan, then he ought to develop the plan, and then explain it in detail to the American people. On the contrary, many experts on Afghanistan assert that by sending more troops, the United States will further inflame the insurgency. These critics argue that a great deal of the Afghan insurgency is a reaction to the US-NATO occupation of the country. It is the occupation, including its hamhanded efforts to impose Western-style democracy on Afghanistan and to inculcate Western-style values in an exceedingly backward and conservative society, that provides the most effective recruiting poster for the Taliban. Many, perhaps most of the insurgents are not hard-core, ideology-driven Taliban partisans, but they are angry, alienated, and fearful Pashtun tribal conservatives who are being driven into the arms of the Taliban. If that’s true, then sending more troops will make the situation much worse.
A recent article in the Washington Post provides a shocking glimpse into Obama’s flawed strategy. According to the article, Obama and his team “do not anticipate that the Iraq-like surge will significantly change the direction of a conflict that has steadily deteriorated.” Instead, says the Post, the deployment of 30,000 more US forces is designed simply to buy time for the Obama White House to figure out what to do. Concludes the article:
“Obama’s national security team expects that the new deployments, which will nearly double the current U.S. force of 32,000 (alongside an equal number of non-U.S. NATO troops), will help buy enough time for the new administration to reappraise the entire Afghanistan war effort and develop a comprehensive new strategy for what Obama has called the ‘central front on terror.'”
In my Nation piece, I provided a detailed account of why the “surge and negotiate” policy is wrongheaded. Besides the two flaws cited above, there is a deeper problem that relates to American objectives in Afghanistan. If the goal is to eliminate or neutralize Al Qaeda, then we’ve already won the war. If the goal is to eradicate the Taliban, remake Afghan society, and modernize its culture, then America is looking at a Thirty Years’ War. There are some, including some human rights and women rights activists, who believe that reorganizing the social basis of Afghan society is an achievable goal. It is not. There are other, darker forces who believe that a long-term US presence in the heart of central Asia is an important geo-strategic goal for the United States, vis-a-vis Russia and China, in the struggle for regional influence and access to oil and natural gas.
It’s encouraging, in a small degree, that Obama has said — since being elected — that US goals in Afghanistan are “very limited” and the “No. 1 goal” is to stop Al Qaeda and to ensure that Afghanistan “cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States.” If he sticks to that limited goal, and abandons any pretense that the United States can bring democracy and the Enlightenment to Kandahar, then perhaps he can be persuaded not to go along with the generals in expanding the war. Perhaps.
The true exit strategy for the United States in Afghanistan is to put a complete withdrawal of US forces on the table, in order to draw Taliban-linked insurgents into productive talks. To start the process, an immediate partial pullout — say, 5,000 troops — on a unilateral basis could get the ball rolling. Additional withdrawals could be accompanied by a negotiation process among the Karzai government in Kabul, various regional warlords and tribal leaders, former Taliban, moderate (and even not-so-moderate) current Taliban representatives. The governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which have close ties to the Afghan Taliban, would have be get involved actively. So would the anti-Taliban neighbors of Afghanistan, including India, Russia, and Iran, who sponsored the Northern Alliance that resisted Taliban rule. And all of these countries — plus the United States, the EU, China, and others — would have to put lots of money on the table to cement the deal. (I’ve proposed a fund of at least $100 billion over ten years.)
Getting this done, given Obama’s apparent determination to surge, won’t be easy. Indeed, it may be impossible. It will take a combination of public pressure, efforts by Congressional committees, task forces led by anti-surge “gray beards,” and continued resistance by NATO, especially Germany, to sending additional troops into the quagmire.
It will also require a vast effort by the United States to support Pakistan’s civilian government in its fearful and tentative attempt to clip the wings of the pro-Taliban Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI. And it will take aggressive efforts by the United Nations and the international community to faciliate a Pakistan-India peace process, since, ultimately, a lasting accord in Afghanistan will have to rest on the foundation of a deal between Pakistan and India.