Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why Obama is Both Right and Wrong About Afghanistan

By Barry Rubin

President Barack Obama seems embarrassingly unable to make up his mind over Afghanistan strategy. His military advisors say he should send more troops because it will win the war; his political advisors say he shouldn’t because it might make him less popular. One can’t help but expect that Obama’s ideological views and instincts lay with those who want to abandon the fight in Afghanistan.

For once I think those instincts are correct.

Or maybe Obama is still wrong. After all, he is the one who described Afghanistan as a “war of necessity” that is “fundamental to the defense of our people.” Actually, while the “war” with radical Islamism, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Bolivia, Hamas, Hizballah, al-Qaida, and other forces could be described in that way, that isn’t true of Afghanistan so much.

The truth is that Obama just seized on Afghanistan because as someone who opposes the war in Iraq and the use of force anywhere else he wanted to show that he wasn't a complete pacifist. His support for the war in Afghanistan is--in my opinion but I can't prove it--a function of his image needs and has nothing to do with Afghanistan itself.

But Sarah Palin is also wrong, though her writing shows that the former governor of Alaska is as sophisticated about foreign affairs as Obama is, and perhaps more so. Here she admirably sums up the problem:

"We can win in Afghanistan by helping the Afghans build a stable representative state able to defend itself. And we must do what it takes to prevail. The stakes are very high. The 9/11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan, and if we are not successful there, al Qaeda will once again find a safe haven, the Taliban will impose its cruelty on the Afghan people, and Pakistan will be less stable."

The first sentence is, however, just plain inaccurate--and something both Obama and Palin are equally wrong about--and has nothing to do with the real situation in Afghanistan. No, there isn't going to be any government in Afghanistan that is either stable or representative, especially if it can defend itself.

As for the rest, in Iraq, it is important who governs. In Afghanistan, it is only important that the Taliban does not govern.

America succeeded in Iraq--succeeded, that is, if "success" is defined modestly--because there was a force that could be nurtured and defended until it was ready to take hold as a stable government capable of governing the country. Even here, though, we should have no illusions about the unity, honesty, stability, and moderation of such a regime. Let's not forget, too, that the strongest part of that force are somewhat Islamist-oriented Shia politicians.

Nevertheless, on the positive side, for their own interests they want to get along with the United States in part because the mainly Sunni Arab states have rejected it or are even indirectly (especially Syria but also Saudi Arabia) attacking it. The other part of the ruling coalition are the Kurds who have no foreign ambitions and need U.S. support against enemies that surround them as well. And this coalition has no interest in being aggressive toward Iraq's neighbors or causing regional crises.

In Afghanistan, there is no way to win. Instead, there's a hodgepodge of ethnic groups and tribes which aren't going to work together and will also fight the kind of hegemony represented by both the current regime and by the Taliban.

Moreover, Afghanistan is so culturally traditionalist, so puritanically Islamic that no matter how much gum American soldiers give kids, no matter how many schools they build, no matter how much money is paid out, most Afghans are still going to hate the United States.

As for the idea that if America doesn't win, al-Qaida and the Taliban will, that is not at all the only option. There are many other forces in Afghanistan which can prevail. Indeed, the most likely outcome is that no one group will prevail and run the whole country.

For both Americans, and for Afghans as well, Afghanistan is an unwinnable war in ways that Iraq was not. There is no potential force that is going to take hold of the country and provide a stable and moderate central government. Afghanistan is just too poor, has too undeveloped a political culture, too many ethnic groups, and too challenging a topography.

And there are more problems. The fundamental unwillingness of Pakistan to cooperate in a real way, no matter how much money it’s paid, is a crippling problem. No matter how many billions the United States pours down the drain in Pakistan, the government and army won't do much to help. On the contrary, Pakistan can be relied on to be a negative force, shaping Afghanistan in its own interests.

As for Obama’s notion of pouring more money into Afghanistan in the belief that it will create an effective army and an honest government that serves the people there is ludicrous. And the idea that anything the United States might do could win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is even more ridiculous. The issues involved are not ones of general principles but relate to the specific nature of the country itself.

What is especially bizarre here has been to see a self-proclaimed liberal president using arguments that liberals were using to ridicule Bush's Iraq policy just a few months ago. If there is any place in the world where the United States should focus on counter-terrorism and not on nation-building or fighting a war with the aim of arriving at a long-term stable peace that country is Afghanistan.

That doesn’t mean the United States should accept a Taliban victory. But there are plenty of war lords and militias ready to fight for their own interests against the Taliban. If there was ever a war that called for payoffs and military aid—but not such advanced equipment as would be dangerous to the United States if captured or sold to the Taliban--rather than the direct engagement of U.S. troops, this is it.

How ironic that those who warned so often and wrongly about Iraq being a new Vietnam are more likely to create such a situation in Afghanistan. And what makes it even more ironic is that they would do so in order to make up for their weakness in other places where a willingness to be tough is far more important.

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