One of the eerier reports on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan appeared recently in the New York Times. Journalist John Burns visited the Russian ambassador in Kabul, Zamir N. Kabulov, who, back in the 1980s, when the Russians were the Americans in Afghanistan, and the Americans were launching the jihad that would eventually wend its way to the 9/11 attacks… well, you get the idea…
In any case, Kabulov was, in the years of the Soviet occupation, a KGB agent in the same city and, in the 1990s, an adviser to a UN peacekeeping envoy during the Afghan civil war that followed. "They’ve already repeated all of our mistakes," he told Burns, speaking of the American/NATO effort in the country. "Now," he added, "they’re making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright." His list of Soviet-style American mistakes included: underestimating "the resistance," an over-reliance on air power, a failure to understand the Afghan "irritative allergy" to foreign occupation, "and thinking that because they swept into Kabul easily, the occupation would be untroubled." Of present occupiers who have stopped by to catch his sorry tale, Kabulov concludes world-wearily, "They listen, but they do not hear."
The question is: Does this experience really have to be repeated to the bitter end — in the case of the Soviets, a calamitous defeat and retreat from Afghanistan, followed by years of civil war in that wrecked country, and finally the rise of the Pakistani-backed Taliban? The answer is: perhaps. There is no question that the advisers President Obama will be listening to are already exploring more complex strategies in Afghanistan, including possible negotiations with "reconcilable elements" of the Taliban. But these all remain military-plus strategies at whose heart lies the kind of troop surge that candidate Obama called for so vehemently — and, given the fate of the previous 2007 U.S./NATO "surge" in Afghanistan, this, too, has failure written all over it.
If you want a glimmer of hope when it comes to the spreading Afghan War–American missile-armed drones have been attacking across the Pakistani border regularly in recent months–consider that Barack Obama has made ex-CIA official Bruce Reidel a key advisor on the deteriorating Pakistani situation. And Reidel recently reviewed startlingly favorably Tariq Ali’s must-read, hard-hitting new book on Pakistan (and so Afghanistan and so American policy), The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power for the Washington Post. ("My employers of the past three decades, the CIA and the Brookings Institution, get their share of blame," Reidel wrote. "So do both of the current presidential candidates…")
Ali believes that there could be a grand, brokered regional solution to the Afghan War, essentially a military-minus strategy. In his most recent piece, "Operation Enduring Disaster," he wrote:
"Over the last two years, the U.S./NATO occupation of that country has run into serious military problems. Given a severe global economic crisis and the election of a new American president–a man separated in style, intellect, and temperament from his predecessor — the possibility of a serious discussion about an exit strategy from the Afghan disaster hovers on the horizon. The predicament the U.S. and its allies find themselves in is not an inescapable one, but a change in policy, if it is to matter, cannot be of the cosmetic variety."
Let’s hope Reidel and others are willing to listen to non-surge options; otherwise Afghanistan will certainly become "Obama’s war," and — for anyone old enough to remember — haven’t we been through that before?