Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Obama's "Certain Defeat"? The No-Violence Administration Fights the Afghan War

By Barry Rubin

If Iraq became Bush’s war, the Obama Administration is making Afghanistan its war. Except for the size and visibility of the conflict—which are huge factors—Bush got the better of the deal.

Iraq has been easier than Afghanistan in two very significant ways: it is more strategically important and it has been conceivably winnable. The mission in Iraq was to buy enough time so that a viable government could come to power, stabilize the situation at least to a minimum, and then defend itself. The U.S. presence could be reduced. This has happened.

In contrast, Afghanistan is unwinnable. There will never be a viable government that can exist without major foreign military presence (or, at least, it wouldn’t be a government governing anything), and the strategic value of the real estate is pretty low. On the military level, the terrain is extremely difficult and, if anything, the local population is less supportive of a U.S. presence.

Now the administration and the military are discussing whether to send more troops to roll back the Taliban’s recent advances, which belied the U.S. generals’ optimism from earlier in this year. The.number of U.S. soldiers is set to rise from 63,000 to 68,000 by the end of 2009, when there will be a total of 110,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. As units withdraw from Iraq, some may be sent to Afghanistan.

Public support for the mission is falling and members of Congress from the president’s Democratic party are pushing for a timetable to pull out.

Tony Cordesman of Georgetown CSIS, who is about the most serious military analyst you’re ever going to meet and is usually a pretty cautious guy, wrote in the Washington Post that if Obama doesn’t send more troops he “will be as much a failed wartime president as George W. Bush," condemning the United States to "certain defeat."

Those are pretty tough words. How can the Obama administration, which seems so pacifistically inclined, gird its loins for a war that may be objectively tougher than Iraq or Vietnam? And what will happen if it doesn’t?

Perhaps the defeat can be kept relatively invisible. The Taliban and warlords might control the countryside and regional towns but in Kabul the central government would still function. With a supportive media and an extremely remote country possibly everything could be made to seem ok. Casualties would continue to be low compared to Iraq.

Meanwhile, though, the Obama Administration faces all the classic traps which entangled predecessors. There was apparently significant fraud in the recent elections so the United States is supporting a regime which has dictatorial aspects. Civilians are regularly killed unintentionally in military operations so U.S. forces can be accused of brutality and war crimes, even if this is done unfairly and for propagandistic purposes.

The president has a clear political-strategic plan for dealing with the war but like most of his other foreign policy plans it makes no sense in terms of the actual issue, as soothing as it might sound to American listeners.

His plan is:

--Pour money into Afghanistan to make the government effective and provide good services to Afghans. Ha, on that one.

--To pour money into Afghanistan to produce a strong reliable Afghan army. Ha, again.

--And to pour money into Pakistan to secure that country’s help in controlling the border area. They’ll take the money and not help much. The only thing the Pakistan military and intelligence units seem capable of doing well nowadays is to organize terrorist attacks against India.

So here it is once again: An endless commitment to battle an unsolvable problem in the Middle East (Arab-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian). The United States must spend large amounts of money and lives to help those unwilling or unable to pull their own weight and who certainly have no intention of showing gratitude in real terms (Palestinians, Gulf Arabs). The policy will be used to stir up anti-Americanism amongst Muslims (all of the above); in its performance the United States will have to help shore up an unpopular regime (Pakistan, etc.).

What? You can’t solve the problem by making a speech to show people you want to be their friends, win a total military victory, bring democracy and higher living standards to make everyone content, engage the radicals into moderation, or find the perfect compromise?

No. And remember, Afghanistan has all the negative aspects of the Middle East and then some. Watch the Afghanistan issue. The only reason it won’t become a very important problem for the Obama Administration is that not enough others are watching it.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.


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