Commentary

President Obama’s Briar Patch

By Melvin A. Goodman

Alexander the Great couldn’t do; Queen Victoria couldn’t do it; three successive Soviet general-secretaries from 1979 to 1985 couldn’t do it. Both his writings and his first two months in office indicate that President Obama is a man of great confidence and persistence. Unfortunately, he is likely to join his predecessors in failing to stabilize the political and economic foundations of Afghanistan.

Obama’s persistence, in this case, will lead to persistent warfare. Added to this, he has taken on the Sisyphean challenges of strengthening Pakistan’s democracy with $7.5 billion in economic aid over the next five years; forging economic and military cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan; and stabilizing relations between India and Pakistan. Afghanistan will now become Obama’s war, and Southwest Asia may well become his briar patch.   

In March 1985, President Mikhail Gorbachev acceded to power; within several weeks he repudiated his predecessors and gave a secret speech to the Politburo that referred to Afghanistan as Moscow’s “bleeding wound.”  In December, the Politburo made the political decision to withdraw. Gorbachev went public with the decision in February 1986, and a year later offered to specify a withdrawal timetable in exchange for US support for a coalition government in Kabul. Unfortunately, Secretary of State George Shultz’s refusal to cooperate delayed Soviet withdrawal to 1989 and set the stage for the ultimate triumph of the Taliban in the 1990s. President Bush abandoned the struggle in 2003, when his administration invaded Iraq. Once again, Taliban forces are positioned to triumph in Afghanistan.  

Rather than emulate Gorbachev’s decisive withdrawal, Obama has endorsed a compromise plan that combines good advice from Vice President Biden, with bad advice from General David Petreaus, and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Petreaus, who has been given too much credit for his counterinsurgency doctrine and his support for the surge in Iraq, clearly favors a long-term commitment in Afghanistan, an effort to protect the Afghan population, and a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the populace. 

Holbrooke, who cut his teeth on a failed Vietnam policy in the 1960s as a junior Foreign Service Officer, wants to widen assistance programs to corrupt and incompetent governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only Biden appears to understand that our only objective in Afghanistan is making sure that al Qaeda does not gain another sanctuary in Afghanistan for planning operations against the United States and that it does not require a stronger military presence in Afghanistan to achieve such an objective. Rather, a stronger military presence will undermine our broader objectives.   

Obama has given Petreaus more troops and Holbrooke more assistance programs. The additional 21,000 troops will not change the military situation as long as the Taliban, al Qaeda, and various tribal elements have a sanctuary in western Pakistan. The application of increased military power in Pakistan will only increase the political power of fundamentalist forces and weaken the Pakistan government’s ability to deal with such forces. 

The assistance package will be accompanied by a “drastic increase in our civilian effort,” but the political corruption of the Afghan government and the economic domination of a booming narcotics trade will ensure continued violence and unpredictability in the entire region. Corrupt governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan will ensure that both countries will slow roll us to death with our assistance and reconstruction dollars; we will throw billions of dollars at this fool’s errand.

Obama believes that “increased funding for a strong Inspector General (IG) at both the State Department and the Agency for International Development…and a Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction” will stop waste and corruption, but IG reports have expertly tracked–but not stopped–the corruption and venality within the Afghan Army and Police. No amount of American forces or American aid dollars will stabilize Afghanistan, let alone create a democratic government.

At least, we can be thankful that Obama ignored the polemics of Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who favor a large-scale military buildup, which begs such questions as where the force structure for a major expansion of forces would come from and how do we deal with the logistical nightmare that already complicates our military presence. The mujahideen forces in the 1980s shut down the Salang Tunnel on a regular basis, compromising the Soviet military campaign. The opposition in western Pakistan has successfully hampered our supply route through the Khyber Pass, and Kyrgyzstan is poised to shut down a major transportation center at Manes Airbase.  There are many amateurs debating strategy for Afghanistan, but we need military professionals to recognize the importance of logistics and the overwhelming limitations on a U.S. military presence at any level.    

We invaded Iraq six years ago when there was no connection whatsoever between that country and American national, let alone vital, interests and now we are committing greater forces and resources to Afghanistan where there is no connection between that country and American vital interests. Our only concern should be making sure that al Qaeda or some other international terrorist force does not gain a safe haven in Afghanistan, and it does not require a large-scale troop presence in Afghanistan to achieve that mission. 

Sea-based air power and air bases in the Persian Gulf could contain any government in Afghanistan, even a Taliban one, and disrupt al Qaeda operations and facilities in that country.  It took the United States far too long to discuss a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq; it is essential to deal with a timetable for Afghanistan as soon as possible. It is time to support the Afghan government’s accommodation with insurgent groups and begin our own process of political accommodation.

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