Obama and Afghanistan: the only possibility for “success”

Pres. Obama probably had no choice at this stage of his presidency and under the present circumstances but to accede to the demands of his military commanders and commit tens of thousands of additional American troops to the Afghan war. It took him months longer to make the decision than it probably should have, and that’s because I think it is both strategically and politically almost impossible to decide what the wisest course of action would be. In the end, therefore, he decided to both maintain the logic of his presidential campaign in which he distinguished between stupid, unnecessary wars (Iraq) and unavoidable, essential wars (Afghanistan), and to avoid a public fight with the military. Moreover, the decision not to increase troop levels would have amounted to a decision to begin to withdraw from the country under the present circumstances, which, with a resurgent Taliban not only threatening Kabul but also rising in Pakistan as well, would have been strategically difficult to justify. But by putting an 18 month limit on the surge and implicitly promising to begin a generalized withdrawal in approximately 2 years, he has also tried to reassure those who feel the war is pointless, lost or fundamentally unwinnable.

As with the healthcare debate, neither the left nor the right could be satisfied by anything that is politically plausible, so Obama has again decided to split both sides against the middle. In the immediate term, it probably avoids the most significant political damage he would have suffered in yet another brutal battle with an increasingly incensed Republican minority and significant and powerful segments of his own cabinet and some leading Democrats. Whether it proves politically or strategically wise in the long run, seems almost impossible to accurately predict at this stage.

One thing is certain: “nation-building” and attempting to rule in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand. It is one of the greatest clichés involving international relations that Afghanistan is virtually ungovernable from within (this actually is probably not true, and there is quite a bit of historical precedent against such an assertion) and completely ungovernable from without (this, on the other hand, would certainly seem to be the case). At the very least, it can be said that Afghans have a habit of making it prohibitively costly for any outside power that tries to impose its direct rule on the country in general, and even local authorities seen as exerting too much heavy-handed control over regions that are disparate and fiercely independent. Therefore, insofar as Obama’s vision of the Afghan war involves nation-building on a grand scale, or long-term direct or proxy American rule of Afghanistan, it’s almost certainly bound to fail, and probably at considerable financial, human and strategic cost.

However, although his critics would accuse him of envisaging precisely such a scenario, the president has in fact left open the possibility of a very different path that is not inconsistent with this troop surge and the conditions he laid down in his speech last night. The president and his supporters can credibly argue that it is simply too dangerous for the United States under the present circumstances to leave the Afghan (or rather as it has become the Afghan/Pakistan) theater completely and that therefore a new level of intensification of efforts involving not only troops but additional efforts is required. He placed the emphasis on training the Afghan military, but there are very real questions as to the extent that a military based out of Kabul could rule all of that country directly and effectively after what it has gone through over the past three decades, especially if ethnic tensions persist. A great deal of what the President said probably can be dismissed as window dressing (complaints about corruption, etc.) on what is to all appearances a very dismal Afghan government. But his warnings about the dangers of the resurgence of Al Qaeda linked to the Taliban are extremely well-founded, and on that basis alone trying to do more in Afghanistan before leaving probably makes sense as opposed to simply drawing down and walking away (as we did twice in the recent past, both times to disastrous consequences).

Immediately after 9/11 most Americans agreed on the necessity of removing the Taliban government from power in Afghanistan and doing everything possible to make sure that Al Qaeda would no longer find safe haven there. To say that the mission has been bungled would be an understatement I think. The most dramatic miscalculation, obviously (and it was obvious at the time as well) was turning attention away from Afghanistan and, inexplicably, towards Iraq, which not only allowed the situation in Afghanistan (and ultimately Pakistan) to deteriorate disastrously, but also breathed new life into what was a moribund Al Qaeda movement. The fact that the Iraqis themselves in the end decided collectively and virtually unanimously that Al Qaeda had to go was more a product of the extremists’ own lunacy and barbarity than any strategic success on the American part (of course, paying the former insurgents of the so-called “awakening” certainly helped accomplish this goal, although it also helps set the stage for a much more dramatic potential Iraqi civil war in the future – but that is another matter.)

The Afghan war has also been bungled not only by relative neglect, and the embracing of an incredibly corrupt and incompetent Kabul government, but also a failure to appreciate both what is possible and impossible in that country. The fact that the conflict is driven at least as much by ethnic tensions and parochial political interests than it is by ideology seems to have escaped American planning until now. The same problem applies in Pakistan. What you’re looking at is the convergence of ethnic civil conflict and tensions and parochial power interests with ideological fanaticism and transnational terrorism. It’s a combustible mix, and I can understand why Obama wouldn’t want to leave things the way they unacceptably are.

The problem is, historical experience and practical logic suggest that there is only one effective solution to this combustible mixture, and it’s not the creation of a well functioning, harmonious, integrated and reliably pro-western Afghan state. Even if such a goal were achievable by outsiders under the present circumstances, which I highly doubt, it would almost certainly not be worth the cost, and the American public would undoubtedly decline to pay it in blood and treasure. Even more limited long-term counterinsurgency is incredibly costly, bloody and time-consuming, and I doubt the American public has the will or the wallet to countenance the decades of counterinsurgency designed to suppress the Taliban.

What could possibly work, however, is to decouple the two sides of this equation that make it intolerable to the outside world. In other words, accept that the ethnic divisions and even conflicts in Afghanistan (and possibly even northern Pakistan) are simply not a vital strategic interest to the United States, and that local parochial and regional proxy interests are best left to their own devices as long as they genuinely remain local and not the tools of those wishing to overthrow national governments or engage in transnational terrorism.

The traditional arrangement by both central governments and colonial powers in places like southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan has been simple: you over there, doing what you want, us over here with you leaving us alone. This kind of understanding is, conceivably, recuperable in both of those places in the foreseeable future. For the moment, the problem is that there are too many ideological fanatics interwoven into the various movements, especially both the Afghan and Pakistan versions of the Taliban, who are unwilling to accept the idea that they may do as they wish in their own areas as long as they do not try to destabilize the central governments, expand the territory under their control in an unreasonable manner, or, most importantly, collude with transnational terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. If there is to be a “success” for the United States in Afghanistan and for Islamabad in its northern provinces, it’s going to have to be based on distinguishing between those willing to accept the old arrangement of radical autonomy in their own areas, possibly enhanced with financial incentives and other goodies, versus those whose designs extend towards the Afghan and Pakistani states generally and worse towards the broader world.

This decoupling, difficult though it might be, is not impossible by any means in my view and is going to have to be at the heart of American, Afghan government and Pakistani strategies in the next couple of years if they are to have any hope of success. The worst case scenario has been playing itself out in recent years: ideological fanaticism of an unacceptable variety, that can and must be contained if not obliterated, has managed to fuse itself with ethnic and parochial grievances that can be neither contained nor obliterated but which traditionally have been and can again be accommodated. Whatever Obama was telling the American public last night, whatever his generals are telling him, and whatever Richard Holbrook is telling everybody who will listen to him, in the back of their minds they had better understand this is the only realistic way forward.

I believe it is entirely possible to read this strategy into Obama’s speech last night, which emphasized denying Al Qaeda safe haven and thwarting Taliban ability to overthrow the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But I would hasten to add this can only be achieved by the decoupling I described, as the ethnic, local and parochial elements defining the Afghan civil war (and the incipient civil war in Pakistan as well) are not, in fact, going to go away. Neither will the persistent efforts of all regional powers to use proxies to project their own interests into Afghanistan (it is this imperative that prompted Pakistan to counterintuitively continue to support the Taliban in Afghanistan as its proxy there, while feeling deeply threatened by any Taliban activity inside Pakistan itself, ending up producing a nascent civil conflict threatening Islamabad).

All of this ethnic, parochial, local and regional infighting in Afghanistan is going to go forward, no matter what, and trying to stop it is pointless. But it could go forward without the extreme ideology and transnational terrorism that are the source of genuine, serious international concern. Any efforts at troop surge, counterinsurgency, nation-building, winning hearts and minds or whatever else you want to call it that are not ultimately aimed at affecting this decoupling and making a deal with those who are willing to accept the old formula of you over there and us over here, against those who are not willing to accept this arrangement, will be worse than a waste of time.

I believe there is a potential for a measure of what one might call “success,” as I have defined it, if everybody is clear about what is necessary and achievable, as opposed to what is unnecessary, unachievable, prohibitively costly, counterproductive and possibly even disastrous. The elements of it were reflected in the President’s speech last night, but so were many other less worthy ideas that I can only hope are window dressing for a sober, limited and focused campaign to restore the old arrangement of you over there and us over here. That, and only that, could actually work.