Obama and Afghanistan

Barack Obama was treated with all the pomp of a visiting head of state when he visited Baghdad and talked with Prime Minister Maliki, who recently at least seemed to endorse Obama’s plan to have troops out of Iraq within 16 months. At this point, Obama seems to be winning the debate about Iraq, with McCain relying on the rather dubious argument that the ‘surge’ is the cause of all improvements there. But even if one believes McCain’s argument (I think he’s vastly overstating both the level of improvement and the role the surge has played in that), it’s so far removed from the focus Americans have on the future and the need to end America’s involvement in Iraq, that it’s not gaining traction. More important for Obama, though, is the renewed focus on Afghanistan.

Time has the Afghan “war” as the cover story, citing it as the “right war.” The Financial Times noted (on July 22) that Obama “is right when he says the situation in Afghanistan is ‘precarious and urgent’. He is right too that Iraq has distracted attention from this and other important US policy priorities; and he is right that commanders in Afghanistan could use more troops.” FT warns, however, that Obama should not fall into the trap of thinking there is a military solution for Afghanistan. By definition an increased focus on Afghanistan heightens the perception that Iraq was an unneeded distraction, and the Bush Administration left the real center of the “war on terror” neglected.

Afghanistan has been neglected, not just by the Bush administration, but also by the media and critics of US policy, all of whom have focused on Iraq.

Back in 2002, with Hamid Karzai at the helm and NATO ready to take over the Afghan operation, it appeared the US had succeeded in both defeating the Taliban and creating the possibility of a modern, democratic Afghanistan. What went wrong?

The short answer is that the same problem gripped the Administration for Afghanistan as for Iraq — an ideology-driven understanding of reality. They truly thought that democracy would rather easily take hold, and that the ‘hard part’ was over.

Could things have gone differently? In late 2001 the US “won” in Afghanistan, but the victory was not the same as the total victory over Saddam in Iraq in 2003. The US and NATO forces had limited operations in Afghanistan, and relied on war lords in the north, the so called “northern alliance,” to actually oust the Taliban. This alliance, whose rule in the early 90s had led to a kind of anarchy with rape, murder and theft being common place (leading many to embrace even the puritanical Taliban), was not a freedom loving pro-democracy group wanting to hook up with the West. They were warlords, regional leaders and often people whose agendas were petty — find a way to use their power to get ‘a piece of the action.’

When Pakistani President Musharraf made his dramatic volte-face to support the US, the Bush administration confidently concluded that the tide had turned, and now countries, seeing America’s willingness to use force, wanted to be on our good side. The dangers for Musharraf were not taken fully into account. Thus, as the Iraq war dragged on and anti-American sentiment grew, Musharraf barely held on to power, and found little reason to give the US anything other than lip service. Allowing US intrusions into Pakistan or trying to use the Pakistani military to tame tribal regions ceased being options for the increasingly weakened Musarraf regime, much to the frustration of American military leaders. This meant that al qaeda and Taliban officials would have safe refuge in Pakistan, and probably even considerable help from the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, which had been allied with the Taliban anyway.

Moreover, as the new Afghan government got situated, nothing was done to assure rule of law or hinder corruption. In fact, much like in Iraq a couple years later, the US seemed to accept corruption as the way things were done, not realizing that it is the biggest impediment to creating a stable democracy besides civil unrest. The security forces there treated the northern alliance as allies, trying to create a partnership between Karzai and various warlords and military leaders. All paid lip service to Afghanistan as one state, but warlords carved out territory to control and made sure that the central government was in charge of little outside Kabul. Opium production increased and NATO forces trying to root out Taliban or al qaeda had to work with the local militias, giving them legitimacy.

Although NATO originally was intensely supportive of efforts in Afghanistan, American unpopularity in Iraq led European public opinion to shift against an on going presence in Afghanistan. It had been America’s war and if the US decided to ignore European opinion and leap into conflict with Iraq, well, why bail the US out in Afghanistan? European governments recognized Afghanistan was important, but moved away from direct military confrontation towards help on basic security and reconstruction. All the while, the Taliban patiently bought off war lords and expanded control in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

If the US had not gone to Iraq, focused on Afghanistan, pushed for the development of stable central rule of law, and maintained the good will that the Europeans and others showed the US after 9-11, it’s possible Afghanistan might have turned out quite differently. A multilateral effort to keep the Taliban at bay and work to build a modern political economy might have worked. That didn’t happen, and Afghanistan has slipped too far to regain the opportunity for a stable, democratic, Afghanistan.

So now what? An “Afghan surge” seems to be in the works, but just as reports of the surge’s efficacy in Iraq have been greatly over-exaggerated, Afghanistan is not Iraq. It simply isn’t possible to go in, clean out the corruption, eliminate the war lords, and defeat the Taliban completely. Just as we are leaving Iraq, we need to depart Afghanistan. Breaking something without fixing it may seem bad, but it was broken before, and our ability to ‘fix’ it through military force is much like my two year old’s claims he can fix my stereo system with a hammer. Sometimes trying to fix does more harm than good.

Leaving Afghanistan would make it easier to work with Pakistan, force the Afghans to solve their own problems, and allow us to focus on al qaeda in a counter-terrorist manner, not playing into their hands by treating it like a military conflict. Leaving would probably involve a time frame much like that for Iraq, and would have to be coordinated with Afghan and other NATO forces. There also could be room for some military presence for specific security needs, and of course efforts to fight corruption and build the society shouldn’t be abandoned. But we can’t do it with guns.

Politically, Obama gains by saying “Iraq distracted us from Afghanistan, I want to focus efforts there to win.” He sounds tough, and it emphasizes the point Iraq has been a pointless and painful distraction. But if any lesson can be learned from Iraq, it’s that there is no quick military fix to corruption or a society torn apart by war and competing militias. Getting deeper militarily into Afghanistan would only create another quagmire. It is time to end our involvement in both “wars.”

  1. #1 by batguano101 on July 23, 2008 - 18:04

    After 911 traffic stopped and people were not going out.
    When we went into Kandahar to the camp that trained and sent the terrorists of 911 the USA breathed a sigh of relief and went back to business as usual.
    The calvary had saved the day.

    Last week 200 insurgents made a frontal assault on a FOB and we had 9 KIA in desperate fighting.

    The conclusion you can draw down forces when the country is being retaken by the people who were part of or allowed Afghanistan used as an operations base to attack NYC and the Pentagon does not seem reasonable.

  2. #2 by Jeff Lees on July 23, 2008 - 19:41

    I have to disagree with Scott, I do not believe that Afghanistan is in any threat of becoming a quagmire, and I do not believe that it is not worth the effort. Afghanistan is the home of Al-Qaeda, and I’m sure the Afghan government will not, and can not, “solve” that problem on their own. I think Afghanistan has a brighter future actually, with both candidates pledging more support for Afghanistan, and both Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy pledging more support, I think Afghanistan will be fine.

    I think it is also strategically important to have bases in Afghanistan. I feel safer knowing that we could act faster if there were any problems in Iran or Pakistan.

    I also don’t see how we could conduct effective “counter-terrorist” operation in Afghanistan without being there. Like “batguano” said, “counter-terrorism” isn’t going to defeat 200 coordinated insurgents.

  3. #3 by John Maszka on July 24, 2008 - 18:53

    Senator Obama is turning out to be a real disappointment and a very dangerous man. Moving the war on terror to Pakistan could have disastrous consequences on both the political stability in the region, and in the broader balance of power. Scholars such as Richard Betts accurately point out that beyond Iran or North Korea, “Pakistan may harbor the greatest potential danger of all.” With the current instability in Pakistan, Betts points to the danger that a pro-Taliban government would pose in a nuclear Pakistan. This is no minor point to be made. While the Shi’a in Iran are highly unlikely to proliferate WMD to their Sunni enemies, the Pakistanis harbor no such enmity toward Sunni terrorist organizations. Should a pro-Taliban or other similar type of government come to power in Pakistan, Al-Qaeda’s chances of gaining access to nuclear weapons would dramatically increase overnight.

    There are, of course, two sides to every argument; and this argument is no exception. On the one hand, some insist that American forces are needed in order to maintain political stability and to prevent such a government from rising to power. On the other hand, there are those who believe that a deliberate attack against Pakistan’s state sovereignty will only further enrage its radical population, and serve to radicalize its moderates. I offer the following in support of this latter argument:

    Pakistan has approximately 160 million people; better than half of the population of the entire Arab world. Pakistan also has some of the deepest underlying ethnic fissures in the region, which could lead to long-term disintegration of the state if exacerbated. Even with an impressive growth in GDP (second only to China in all of Asia), it could be decades before wide-spread poverty is alleviated and a stable middle class is established in Pakistan.

    Furthermore, the absence of a deeply embedded democratic system in Pakistan presents perhaps the greatest danger to stability. In this country, upon which the facade of democracy has been thrust by outside forces and the current regime came to power by coup, the army fulfills the role of “referee within the political boxing ring.” However, this referee demonstrates a “strong personal interest in the outcome of many of the fights and a strong tendency to make up the rules as he goes along.” The Pakistani army “also has a long record of either joining in the fight on one side or the other, or clubbing both boxers to the ground and taking the prize himself” (Lieven, 2006:43).

    Pakistan’s army is also unusually large. Thathiah Ravi (2006:119, 121) observes that the army has “outgrown its watchdog role to become the master of this nation state.” Ravi attributes America’s less than dependable alliance with Pakistan to the nature of its army. “Occasionally, it perceives the Pakistan Army as an inescapable ally and at other times as a threat to regional peace and [a] non-proliferation regime.” According to Ravi, India and Afghanistan blame the conflict in Kashmir and the Durand line on the Pakistan Army, accusing it of “inciting, abetting and encouraging terrorism from its soil.” Ravi also blames the “flagrant violations in nuclear proliferation by Pakistan, both as an originator and as a conduit for China and North Korea” on the Pakistan Army, because of its support for terrorists.

    The point to be made is that the stability of Pakistan depends upon maintaining the delicate balance of power both within the state of Pakistan, and in the broader region. Pakistan is not an island, it has alliances and enemies. Moving American troops into Pakistan will no doubt not only serve to radicalize its population and fuel the popular call for Jihad, it could also spark a proxy war with China that could have long-lasting economic repercussions. Focusing on the more immediate impact American troops would have on the Pakistani population; let’s consider a few past encounters:

    On January 13, 2006, the United States launched a missile strike on the village of Damadola, Pakistan. Rather than kill the targeted Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, the strike instead slaughtered 17 locals. This only served to further weaken the Musharraf government and further destabilize the entire area. In a nuclear state like Pakistan, this was not only unfortunate, it was outright stupid.

    On October 30, 2006, the Pakistani military, under pressure from the US, attacked a madrassah in the Northwest Frontier province in Pakistan. Immediately following the attack, local residents, convinced that the US military was behind the attack, burned American flags and effigies of President Bush, and shouted “Death to America!” Outraged over an attack on school children, the local residents viewed the attack as an assault against Islam.
    On November 7, 2006, a suicide bomber retaliated. Further outrage ensued when President Bush extended his condolences to the families of the victims of the suicide attack, and President Musharraf did the same, adding that terrorism will be eliminated “with an iron hand.” The point to be driven home is that the attack on the madrassah was kept as quiet as possible, while the suicide bombing was publicized as a tragedy, and one more reason to maintain the war on terror.

    Last year trouble escalated when the Pakistani government laid siege to the Red Mosque and more than 100 people were killed. “Even before his soldiers had overrun the Lal Masjid … the retaliations began.” Suicide attacks originating from both Afghan Taliban and Pakistani tribal militants targeted military convoys and a police recruiting center. Guerrilla attacks that demonstrated a shocking degree of organization and speed-not to mention strategic cunning revealed that they were orchestrated by none other than al-Qaeda’s number two man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri; a fact confirmed by Pakistani and Taliban officials. One such attack occurred on July 15, 2007, when a suicide bomber killed 24 Pakistani troops and injured some 30 others in the village of Daznaray (20 miles to the north of Miran Shah, in North Waziristan). Musharraf ordered thousands of troops into the region to attempt to restore order. But radical groups swore to retaliate against the government for its siege of the mosque and its cooperation with the United States.

    A July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concludes that “al Qaeda is resurgent in Pakistan- and more centrally organized than it has been at any time since 9/11.” The NIE reports that al-Qaeda now enjoys sanctuary in Bajaur and North Waziristan, from which they operate “a complex command, control, training and recruitment base” with an “intact hierarchy of top leadership and operational lieutenants.”

    In September 2006 Musharraf signed a peace deal with Pashtun tribal elders in North Waziristan. The deal gave pro-Taliban militants full control of security in the area. Al Qaeda provides funding, training and ideological inspiration, while Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Tribal leaders supply the manpower. These forces are so strong that last year Musharraf sent well over 100,000 trained Pakistani soldiers against them, but they were not able to prevail against them.

    The question remains, what does America do when Pakistan no longer has a Musharraf to bridge the gap? While Musharraf claims that President Bush has assured him of Pakistan’s sovereignty, Senator Obama obviously has no intention of honoring such an assurance. As it is, the Pakistanis do just enough to avoid jeopardizing U.S. support. Musharraf, who is caught between Pakistan’s dependence on American aid and loyalty to the Pakistani people, denies being George Bush’s hand-puppet. Musharraf insists that he is “200 percent certain” that the United States will not unilaterally decide to attack terrorists on Pakistani soil. What happens when we begin to do just that?

  4. #4 by batguano101 on July 24, 2008 - 20:26

    Mazska,

    The discussion is Afghanistan, and the quotes of the candidate are Afghanistan, yet you jump to apply it to invasion of Pakistan by the USA.

    Pakistan was and is not the point of the article here, Afghanistan is.

    It is an election year and Obama is focusing on what many Americans have noted, lack of follow-up in Afghanistan. There are also clearly increased operations by insurgents.

    Both political candidates, McCain and Obama, are changing their stances leading toward elections attempting to win the election, and may well change afterward.

    Pakistan is another fish to skin altogether.

  5. #5 by Islamic Jihad on July 28, 2008 - 11:20

    Art is why I get up in the morning but my definition ends there. You know I don’t think its fair that I’m living for something I can’t even define.AniDifrancoAni Difranco

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