Afghanistan: Obama at the crossroads

Election fiascos and strategy deliberations continue, while Pakistan’s army is laying waste to South Waziristan. The deliberations are of the utmost importance; more important and more pressing than health care reform. This is Obama’s second strategy review in nine months. He cannot, politically or strategically, continue on such a pace. That means that the decisions made can be expected to indicate overall policy for the rest of his term, if not longer in the way that policy develops a momentum of its own.

There’s no question that the election was rigged, but the low voter turnout is more dangerous to government legitimacy than the fraud. Just five years ago Afghanistan held an election that defied expectations: women voted in large numbers, old men cried after voting for the first time in their lives, polls had to stay open late so that all who wanted to vote could, and it was peaceful. In effect, we’ve been moving backwards.

Karzai appears to be the odd man out, or at least a convenient scapegoat. The failure that characterizes the mission to date is less about Karzai’s imperfection than about what passed for strategy during the Bush administration. Obama administration spokespeople are promoting the meme that we need a strong central government in Kabul for the mission to be successful. That’s true, and i’m glad to see that everyone read COIN for Dummies, but we’re leaving out significant issues that need to be considered and addressed. The Pentagon only discovered counter-insurgency a few years ago. It certainly wasn’t practiced in the early stages of the Afghan conflict. Our counter-insurgency strategy then went by the name of, publicly i might add, “The Warlord Strategy”.

Karzai’s government is weak and ineffectual because we spent those heady days leaving him to molder in Kabul while the CIA handed attaché cases full of cash to the warlords whose power we now bemoan. Reconstruction has been woefully underfunded. Plans have been mired in indecision and bureaucracies working at cross-purposes. Much of the money spent found its way back to donor countries through consultancies and contracting. It’s a functioning society that gives government legitimacy. Would you give a rip what the President says if you only had electricity every few days?

You can’t change history. You also can’t pretend that it didn’t happen. And you certainly can’t make it go away by chanting, “Bush’s fault, Bush’s fault.” We do, however, have to deal with the effects of that sordid history. The Afghan insurgency—religious, nationalist or tribal—is strong and gaining strength; that’s what insurgencies do in the vacuum created by weak government. It’s victory by default, because while a person may find Taliban justice horrifying, it is at least justice. When a weak government obviously leans on its foreign patron, the insurgency wins again. It is able to portray an already weak government as a puppet of the occupier. The deck is stacked against a foreign power occupying territory with an indigenous insurgency. If the insurgency has outside support or safe haven, then the game is rigged. This insurgency has both, which is why Pakistan is leveling South Waziristan. Whether Pakistan is genuinely attempting to address the insurgency issues on its side of the not-really-an-international-border border or not remains to be seen. It has a long history of playing multiple sides of the game, even when Pakistan is endangered.

The Obama administration made Hamid Karzai lose whatever honor he had left when it forced him to announce the run off. I believe in the sanctity of democracy, and i’m disgusted by the fraud. On the other hand, Afghanistan after more than 30 years of ceaseless conflict is no place to play political-science Pollyanna. Our chances of finding a leader who’s untouched by corruption and also powerful enough to demand loyalty in the present circumstances are roughly the same as there being a leprechaun guarding that leader at the end of a rainbow.

That leaves us with a short list of possible resolutions to the election issue. We can assume that turnout will be dismally low, and we can assume that there will be more fraud. In which case we can A. hide it; B. declare the election fraudulent and let Karzai rule without a constitutional mandate through (at least) the winter, which will surely be a boon to the perception of legitimacy; C. depose Karzai and put an unelected leader in his place; or D. scrap the Afghan-written constitution and put together something we think will work better. I don’t see a good one in the lot.

Galbraith’s noble whistle-blowing put the administration in a difficult position. That it made political hay out of the situation by publicly lecturing on democracy, subtly blaming the mission’s failure on Karzai’s weak government and not-so-subtly displaying the true power relationship in the Kabul election fraud press conference was its own decision. It didn’t have to do any of those things. The left is divided on Afghanistan in the first place, and it isn’t even paying attention. Now the administration is in a corner of its own painting in the midst of deciding how to proceed.

This is not the time to give the Pentagon a chance to prove that it really could have won in Vietnam. Doing this by the DoD’s book will require hundreds of thousands of troops and uncountable sums of money over a very long time span, and even with all that, failure is a real possibility. McChrystal’s 40,000 minimum is unlikely to turn the tide of this conflict, and the idea that the Afghan National Army will make up the bulk of the hundreds of thousands of troops necessary is, at present and in the near-term, laughable. A piece-meal escalation of 15,000 here and 40,000 there might be easier to accomplish from a domestic politics perspective, but it won’t help—and may in fact hinder—the mission. Biden’s plan for a limited, counter-terrorism presence sounds good politically: protect the national security flank while mostly withdrawing from Afghanistan. But it will amount to the US being just one more militia on the Afghan landscape during a civil war.

Obama is in a difficult position. He’s been clear about his intent to stay in Afghanistan, so withdrawal means the dreaded flip-flop, a political opening for the Republican Party and having to stand up to his generals. The last is particularly problematic because he appointed them. Withdrawal has its consequences. The USGS found significant resources in Afghan territory: oil, gas and minerals. The Chinese have already developed a copper mine. These considerations may not make the front page, but rest assured that they’re being discussed behind closed doors.

There are no “good” or incredibly feasible solutions here. The US could drop its pretenses and behave like a real empire, but that’s unlikely and probably wouldn’t be successful anyhow. It can withdraw and leave the area to fester, which will be a massive victory for our supposed enemies and a loss of national honor that few politicians would be willing to risk. Or it can continue muddling through and leave the inevitable for future leaders at the cost of blood, treasure and regional stability.

The best option is, unfortunately, the least realistic. A massive international effort in peacekeeping, disarming Afghanistan and reconstruction combined with grand diplomacy that addresses regional issues is the only realistic possibility for accomplishing our purported goals in the region. There is no template for such an action. There may not be enough international trust to bring it to fruition. And Obama confronting the military to the degree necessary is unlikely, but more likely than him being able to commit the US to such a long-term project.

We can’t know if the deliberations are considering the long-term implications of policy direction. Given the nature of the US, there’s a good chance that decisions will be based more on institutional and political positioning for the short-term. Those long-term implications, however, are real and very dangerous. Remember that Gorbachev chose to escalate the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan when he became General Secretary; he was forced to withdraw later. His situation is instructive, as there are plenty of parallels between his USSR and the United States today. Wisdom is learning from other people’s experience. Should we choose to ignore history and follow Franklin’s maxim that experience is a dear school but a fool will learn in no other, we are likely to fulfill the “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires” prophecy. Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires because of any characteristics inherent in the nation. It just happens to be where falling empires go to die.

2 replies »

  1. This got posted at The Agonist today, and it speaks to many of the issues i though about while writing the above post…things that i would have liked to discuss but deleted from an already too-long-for-a-blog article.


    It’s also worth your time to spend 18 minutes watching this interview with Daniel Ellsburg (The Pentagon Papers):