Afghanistan Dilemma

President elect Obama made hay with the argument that the war in Iraq had taken out focus off Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to be resurgent and creating a situation where NATO commanders even question whether or not a war can be won in Afghanistan.  This will be a major foreign policy test for soon to be President Obama, and one which, if he fails, could threaten his re-election prospects for 2004 2012 (thanks for catching that, Mike!).

Assuming the US can get out of Iraq quickly — and all indications are that we can and will — a few lessons have to be taken from the misadventure in Iraq.  First, while no doubt the US will put the best face on leaving Iraq, it’s clear that we cannot by any reasonable definition call that war a “victory” for the US.  We will be leaving Iraq in a precarious situation, with the central government having limited power, and subject to significant Iranian influence.    Why did we fail in Iraq, and why does it look like we’ll be able to find a way to find a face saving way out?

The failure in Iraq was that we could not socially engineer Iraq into becoming a pro-western secular democratic state.  The dream of “Iraq the model” or “spreading democracy” was never realistic, and the effort to do so lengthened that war and cost untold hundreds of billions of dollars of extra money — not to mention lives.  In Afghanistan we have to resist the idea that we need to create a stable, functioning democratic polity.  That simply is not something we have control over, and the resources and military capacity available is far short of anything that could have a remote shot at creating a “new Afghanistan.”  It was assumed with both Iraq and Afghanistan that they’d rather naturally drift towards becoming a pro-American democracy — that was the fatal flaw of neo-conservative thinking.

Already corruption levels in Afghanistan are huge, opium production skyrocketing, and every obstacle standing in the way of rule of law and democracy is evident.  This cannot be fixed by military power or even economic aid.   Good intentions do not alter reality, and the reality this is Afghanistan’s problem and only Afghans can fix it over time.   The international community can help in coming years, but that’s outside of the current conflict.

So the goal in Afghanistan cannot be grandiose.  We can’t aim to bring the country prosperity and stable rule of law, as much as we’d like those things.  Ultimately the goal must be like that in Iraq: find a face saving way to leave.   There is only one way to do that: decouple the Taliban from al qaeda, and allow the Taliban to be part of a power sharing arrangement in Afghanistan.  Even then we probably can’t guarantee that the powersharing will work, we have to work to at least create the possibility of success, and then leave it up to the Afghans.

Many will blanche at the idea of allowing the Taliban, one of the most ruthless and despotic regimes in recent history, anywhere close to power.   However, not only do they already control strategic sections of Afghanistan, but they appear to be strengthening.  I doubt we can simply defeat them.  Nor do we need to.  We can turn our “Pakistani weakness” into a strength, and then engage the rest of the region.

One reason the US hasn’t caught Bin Laden or had more success against the Taliban is their ability to use parts of Pakistan for refuge.   The Taliban originally won power in Afghanistan with Pakistani support, and much of the ISI (Pakistan’s secret police) remains sympathetic to the Taliban.  Given the unpopularity of the US and US raids into Pakistan, there is little reason for the Pakistani military and government to do any favors for the United States.

However, Pakistan would prefer that the fighting end, and that the US leave the region.  They could entertain a deal where they help mold the remaining Taliban into a group more willing to cooperate with Karzai, less connected to al qaeda.   In exchange, the Taliban gets a seat at the table in Kabul, and the US might even get top al qaeda leaders, maybe  Bin Laden himself.  Obama would look like a mastermind if he could pull it off, the US could leave having “captured Bin Laden.”

However, the Taliban by this point may be resistant to Pakistani influence, so concurrently the US has to engage the rest of the region, and show it can provide a modicum of real security in Afghanistan.  Rather than engage in ‘search and destroy’ missions against the Taliban, the US could embrace an enclave strategy in that heavily populated important cities (such as Kabul and Kandahar) to protect population centers.  This lack of US involvement in the tribal and ethnic battles outside the main cities would put pressure on regional actors to come up with a solution.

Besides Pakistan, Afghanistan borderes Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and in a very small section, China.  All of these states have an interest in the future of Afghanistan, which itself is a multi-ethnic state with variations between regions.  Pakistan wanted the Taliban in power in part to assure groups friendly to it were in charge, Afghanistan is in a strategically improtant position for the regional balance of power.  Iran and the Taliban almost went to war at one point; Iran is a Shi’ite fundamentalist state, the Taliban are Sunni extremists.  By expanding negotiations about Afghanistan’s future to regional actors, it could be possible to cobble together some kind of agreement.  It may not see Afghanistan emerge as a strong, centralized state — but then again, why should it?

If they can agree on powersharing at the national level, and various levels of autonomy at regional levels, the states surrounding Afghanistan could help support a fragile but potentially successful peace.   The US could leave (or keep a token NATO force in place), and then focus primarily on al qaeda and counter-terrorism world wide.

It is important that Obama not get caught up in the mentality that “we can go in and win.”  We’ve committed the same mistakes the Soviets made — and more.   After Iraq the public is in no mood to throw massive resources into yet another conflict with no clear purpose or plan for victory.  Instead, we need to focus on a political/diplomatic offensive, with a minimal military strategy of securing various enclaves in the country.   An offensive against the Taliban, even if we had more troops, is likely to fail.  Obama’s task is to fix the economy and put America on a new path — he can’t do it if we don’t find a way quickly out of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Once the US is out of Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s left is the “war on terror,” or counter-terrorism.   President Obama will have to redefine the former and develop a clear strategy on the latter.  This will replace the failed military strategy of conquering ‘rogue’ states, and can set him up for foreign policy success.  Sometime soon I’ll write more on how to do that.

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  1. #1 by mike lovell on November 18, 2008 - 15:12

    “This will be a major foreign policy test for soon to be President Obama, and one which, if he fails, could threaten his re-election prospects for 2004.”

    Sorry Scott, but I couldn’t resist so……, just to let you know, no matterhow messianic some people may try to make Obama out to be, I doubt even the most enthusiastic supporter of his will believe that he’ll invent a time machine to go back to 2004 when this first term is over to defeat George W Bush’s re-election campaign.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on November 18, 2008 - 17:32

    LOL! Thanks for catching that. Yeah, conquering space-time is probably beyond even “The One’s” capacity!

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