Archive for September 13th, 2008

Is Al-Qaeda winning?

Ironically the day after McCain and Obama together commemorated the seventh anniversary of 9-11, the news coming from Afghanistan became both depressing and alarming.  The situation in Afghanistan, the war supposedly “won” in 2001, is far worse strategically for the US than the situation ever was in Iraq, and in Afghanistan the fight is against the actual terrorists and extremists who attacked us.  And while McCain wants to maintain the delusion that the “surge” of military troops is what’s created more stability in Iraq recently, his attempt to claim Afghanistan could be turned around by a “surge” is patently absurd.  Iraq improved because of retreat from the idealistic effort to turn Iraq into a model democracy, and apparent acceptance of heavy Iranian influence in Iraq’s future.  That’s one reason General Petraeus admits that the US will never leave Iraq with a victory.  Unfortunately, the kind of political changes that helped in Iraq aren’t possible in Afghanistan.

Consider recent events:  The US undertakes a ground raid inside Pakistan.  This creates real anger, and the Pakistani army is told to fight against any foreign intruders into Pakistan.  The message is clear: Pakistani sovereignty must be respected.   But that crisis is likely to get worse rather than better.  Reports from Reuters states it is US fear that it is losing against the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan which prompted increased cross border raids.  Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, openly admits we’re not winning there, and claims to be considering a comprehensive strategy that would encompass “both sides of the border.”

But will it work?  Another air attack today killed at least 14.   Pakistani ire is not something the US can dismiss.  Pakistan has nuclear weapons (and the technology and materials to make them), and there are already close ties between the Taliban and Pakistan’s secret police.  The Pakistanis may not really be able to stop the raids inside their territory, but they can probably do considerable damage to the US by increasing their support of anti-American forces in Afghanistan.   This could be a no-win situation for the US.

Tribal leaders in Waziristan, Pakistan are threatening to throw away their deal with the Pakistani government if it doesn’t stop the US raids.  That would eliminate any chance the Pakistanis could act effectively againstn al qaeda in the southern Wazir region, and could in fact inspire the tribal leaders to be more friendly and give more assistance to the forces fighting the US.

Moreover, NATO forces are refusing to join the US in any fighting or attacks that violate Pakistani sovereignty.   European public opinion is likely to become more opposed to the war, and Europe’s continued participation there (even if the US and UK do most of the actual fighting), threatening to weaken an already weak NATO force.  Germany is set to increase force levels, but may find it difficult to get parliamentary approval in the face of this kind of news.  The German parliament will vote on this in October, and already there have been targetted strikes on German forces, perhaps meant to undercut any troop increase.   Germany already refuses to send troops to the most volitile regions, keeping its forces in the more secure north.

Admiral Mullen noted that the keys to success in Afghanistan were primarily economic and political: building roads, helping create an infrastructure, and giving Afghanistan the kind of aid it needs to create a stable system.  As he put it: “We cannot kill our way to victory and no armed force anywhere, no matter how good, can deliver these keys.”  Yet after nearly seven years of talking about the need to rebuild and give aid to Afghanistan, if things are this dire, what’s the likelihood that there will be a major change?  And with the Taliban resurgent and the US military overstretched, what are the options?

The US in the seven years since 9-11 has made error after error.   Hopefully we’ll leave Iraq soon, but it won’t be a real democracy, and likely be closely tied to Iran, with internal divisions that could create civil war remaining in tact.  Relations with Russia have deteriorated, in part because of aggressive American foreign policy that treated Russia as a second rate player, one that had to do things “our way” in order to have influence.  That may have seemed reasonable when Russia looked weakened and fragile.  But with oil over $100 a barrel, those days are gone.  Now we have a Vice Presidential candidate even hinting that war with Russia might be necessary, a bizarre and dangerous statement.  The US economy has gone into crisis, with the debt balloning, the housing market in shambles, and the US currency weakened (and still suffering a large current accounts deficit).  While there has been improvement in the NATO alliance since 2005, the days of American leadership are over.  Add to that fact it looks like we’re losing Afghanistan, and haven’t been able to defeat Bin Laden or the Taliban, and one has to soberly admit that the attacks of 9-11-01 seem on the path to succeed in their overall goals.

Where do we go from here?  The only answer is a complete shift in focus.   We obviously aren’t going to go to war against Russia, I suspect the Bush Administration concluded awhile back that war with Iran wasn’t viable, and Pakistan is more unpredictable than ever.  The US needs to first create a regional diplomatic outreach, involving the countries around Afghanistan: China, Iran, Russia, the Central Asian Republics, and Pakistan.  In general, the lesson since 2001 is that while lashing out violently against enemies can seem effective and get public support, that support wanes, and soon one realizes that in the 21st century, these kinds of conflicts don’t lend themselves to military solutions.   Cooperative diplomacy, a willingness to work even with regimes we dislike, and a rejection of idealistic efforts to “spread democracy” is really the only way we can turn this around.  We have to recognize that we are not as powerful as we thought, and adjust accordingly.

If the fact that after this long we are in such a difficult situation in Afghanistan, a war people thought was over and won, doesn’t convince people that we’re on the wrong path, I don’t know what will.

Leave a comment