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.