Monday, February 16, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan

US Army soliders set out on a patrol in Paktika province, along the Afghan-Pakistan border, in 2008.

Under the headline "Obama slows troop boost decision," Politico reports:

President Barack Obama is refusing to be rushed into his first decision to send troops into combat, an early sign he may be more independent-minded than U.S. military leaders expected.

The new president's methodical decision-making offers an early insight into how the new commander in chief will approach the war in Afghanistan and has surprised some Pentagon officials, who had predicted repeatedly in the past two weeks that Obama would decide within days on additional forces, only to find the White House taking more time.

Well good. We should all be glad he's going to think carefully before jumping in deeper.

It's probably worthwhile for all of us to take a mental step back and think about why Obama would even be contemplating sending troops to Afghanistan.

The U.S. moved in to overthrow the Afghan Taliban government in October 2001. Most in the U.S.,
though not all, applauded. The on-the-ground forces were mostly from the pre-existing Northern Alliance, a grouping made up of many non-Pashtun speaking militias led by warlords who got their start in the U.S. backed war against the Soviet occupation that ended in 1989. The war's aim, aside from extracting revenge from somebody for the attacks of 9/11, was to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden and to replace the Taliban with a democratic government.

U.S. forces, small in numbers and dependent on Afghan allies, failed at the first objective. A façade of democratic government was created with the elevation of Hamid Karzai as Afghan president. Some regional elections followed. But Karzai never controlled much beyond the capital, Kabul; the sadistic warlords of the Northern Alliance maintained their military fiefdoms; Karzai's government proved rapaciously corrupt; and the Afghan peasantry reverted to reliance on the cash crop of previous eras, opium poppies.

Meanwhile, the U.S. dashed off to invade Iraq. NATO allies were dragged in to take up what they were promised would be a nation-building mission but which proved to be a shooting war. Afghans were miserable enough under Karzai that some welcomed back the Taliban who had continued to enjoy safe haven in and funding from Pakistan.

In short, Afghanistan is FUBAR (fucked up beyond all repair) in U.S. Army slang. The best account of all this I know of is Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos. Rashid's book is a lament for what might have been, the opportunities lost in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of U.S. arrogance and incompetence.

So why would Obama want to throw away more U.S. lives (leaving aside for the moment those of allies and Afghans) in this futile war? Let's think of some of the motives that might be in play.
  • After seven years of dreadful imperial failure, our country hasn't quite got the revenge bug out of our systems. Some Republicans may sell Iraq as a "victory," but the U.S. people have known for several years, according to polls, that Iraq was a failure and a mistake. We haven't been thinking much about Afghanistan; maybe we can "succeed" there to compensate for failure in Iraq? Maybe we'll get lucky and kill Bin Laden?
  • President Obama may genuinely believe that there is some good that can be done by more U.S. troops in that theater. After all, our mucking around there has contributed to further exacerbating pre-existing instability in Pakistan, rendering the whole region an even more volatile, dangerous place than it was before we got there. If he has such beliefs, it seems likely that the more he concentrates on the situation, the less he'll be confident that there is a meaningful mission to define for any unfortunate grunts who get thrown into Afghanistan. Is this dawning recognition the source of his delay?
  • U.S. politics require Democrats to prove they are tough dudes. Republicans have historically done a good job of selling the notion that Democrats are wimps. So Candidate Obama loudly took on a "more troops to the right war, on to Afghanistan" posture. One of the more promising things about President Obama is that he seems to feel some deference to his campaign promises. In this case, the promise was ill-considered, but he probably believes he is bound by it, unless he can give the people a good reason to act differently.
In the end, the U.S. is going to leave Afghanistan, just as the Soviet Union had to 20 years ago. Most people here will get sick of their kids getting killed thousands of miles from home in a war that has no understandable mission or endpoint. We literally can't afford empire anymore. We will eventually comprehend this, whether slowly or rapidly.

If Obama is as smart as he sometimes seems to be, he's trying to figure out how to define an achievable, short-term mission for the Afghan war -- and he is beginning to think about how to extricate the country from this facet of George W's legacy of quagmires.

The people need to encourage him -- we've had enough of meaningless wars of empire.

UPDATE February 17: It seems that Obama has gone for 17000 more troops now -- and is still mulling the endgame. People need to let him know that there has to be one.

For more, check out Get Afghanistan Right.


Will said...

I like your writing and your style. I have some philosophical disagreements with your foreign policy direction but I can definately respect and in some sense agree with the end game.

Also, thank you for reading my piece on Prop 8 and your comment.


William Hill

Darlene said...

I certainly think Obama inherited a huge mess and it will probably be impossible for him to get us out of it with a good ending. I do think it's especially hopeless now that Pakistan has made an agreement with the Taliban.

I am heartily sorry for all the women who will be enslaved by the radical Taliban religious rules, but I don't think we can help them by engaging in a shooting war. Eventually, the Taliban will take over again; probably in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Jayce said...

I would strongly recommend that anyone who thinks Obama can just "get us out of it" rethink their position. There are reasons for a continued US/UN/NATO effort in Afghanistan, and that includes a military effort. If you read Ahmed Rashid carefully, you'll see that he hasn't given up totally on such an effort. Do an advanced Google search with terms like Ahmend Rashid, troops, Afghanistan...

One point stands out from Darlene's post: Yes, it's possible that the Taliban could gain power in Pakistan. What you fail to note, however, is that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. If that doesn't give you nightmares, I don't know what will. It certainly should tell you that Obama has more reason for his Afghan/Pakistan policies than jsut looking tough.

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