Monday, July 19, 2010

Obama’s war of diminishing returns

We’re about three months away from the midterm election in America and about the same length of time until the onset of the fierce Afghan winter. The relationship between the two is closer than you might think. This November will be the American people’s first opportunity to weigh in on the effectiveness of the Obama agenda in a variety of spheres of American life.

One of those spheres of experience, the Afghan war, could well be his undoing, both this November (with the domestic economy in a coma) and in November 2012 (when his own prospects for re-election will hinge on how well he’s walked it like he talked it on ending a financially ruinous foreign war).

In this week’s Newsweek magazine, Richard Haass, a former Bush administration official and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, weighed in on Obama’s options in Afghanistan. There’s much food for thought in Haass’ article; some of it agrees with me, some of it’s, well, indigestible. But the basic thrust of Haass’ well-reasoned, well-written argument makes sense: The status quo for American forces in Afghanistan is no longer a viable option. President Obama downplays or ignores that fact at his peril.

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Haass notes:
The war being waged by the United States in Afghanistan today is fundamentally different and more ambitious than anything carried out by the Bush administration. Afghanistan is very much Barack Obama’s war of choice, a point that the president underscored recently by picking Gen. David Petraeus to lead an intensified counterinsurgency effort there. After nearly nine years of war, however, continued or increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan isn’t likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. ...
Haass’ historical assessment of the Obama administration’s role in this is instructive:
By the time Obama became president in 2009, the situation inside Afghanistan was fast deteriorating. The Taliban were regaining a foothold. There was concern in Washington that if left unchecked they could soon threaten the existence of the elected government in Kabul headed by Hamid Karzai. Trends were judged to be so bad that the president ordered 17,000 more American combat troops to Afghanistan even before the first review he’d ordered up was finished.

Since then Obama has had several opportunities to reassess U.S. goals and interests in Afghanistan, and in each instance he has chosen to escalate. Upon completion of that first review in March 2009, he declared that the U.S. mission would henceforth be ‘to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.’

But in reality the U.S. objective went beyond taking on Al Qaeda; the president announced in those same remarks that the additional U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan would ‘take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east, and give us a greater capacity to partner with Afghan security forces and to go after insurgents along the border.’ In short, the return of the Taliban was equated with the return of Al Qaeda, and the United States became a full protagonist in Afghanistan’s civil war, supporting a weak and corrupt central government against the Taliban. Another 4,000 U.S. troops were sent, to train Afghan soldiers.
These and later troop enhancements point to the Obama White House developing an Afghan policy at cross purposes with itself.

On the one hand, Obama rhetorically speaks of “taking the fight to the Taliban” and al-Qaeda with more U.S. forces; on the other hand, he talks about a July 2011 deadline for the start of a U.S. withdrawal of those same forces he’s pouring into the country right now. It’s a contradictory policy that can only contribute to what’s long been a war of diminishing returns.

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Haass writes about Obama’s various options:
The economic costs to the United States of sticking to the current policy are on the order of $100 billion a year, a hefty price to pay when the pressure to cut federal spending is becoming acute. The military price is also great, not just in lives and matériel but also in distraction at a time when the United States could well face crises with Iran and North Korea. ...

At the other end of the policy spectrum would be a decision to walk away from Afghanistan — to complete as quickly as possible a full U.S. military withdrawal. Doing so would almost certainly result in the collapse of the Karzai government and a Taliban takeover of much of the country. Afghanistan could become another Lebanon, where the civil war blends into a regional war involving multiple neighboring states. Such an outcome triggered by U.S. military withdrawal would be seen as a major strategic setback to the United States in its global struggle with terrorists. ...
Haass entertains other possible avenues:
One is reconciliation, a fancy word for negotiating a ceasefire with those Taliban leaders willing to stop fighting in exchange for the chance to join Afghanistan’s government. It is impossible, though, to be confident that many Taliban leaders would be prepared to reconcile; they might decide that time is on their side if they only wait and fight.
Haass’ idea for negotiating a ceasefire with Taliban leaders amenable to a quid pro quo for influence in the Afghan government anticipates against the probable thinking of Taliban leaders, who’ve no doubt already made the calculation to wait the United States out.

At an annual cost to the United States of $100 billion and far too many human lives lost and maimed, the wait-it-out strategy is, from the Taliban perspective, a sound one. Their role in the Afghan conflict costs them a fraction of what the United States is paying. And for the Taliban and other bad actors in the region, the United States seeking a cease-fire could be the kind of emotionally galvanizing event that resonates through the Islamist extremist community, endangering American interests in other countries subject to that sphere of influence.

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Partitioning Afghanistan creates another completely different set of problems. From Haass:
One new idea put forward by Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India, is for a de facto partition of Afghanistan. Under this approach, the United States would accept Taliban control of the Pashtun-dominated south so long as the Taliban did not welcome back Al Qaeda and did not seek to undermine stability in non-Pashtun areas of the country. If the Taliban violated these rules, the United States would attack them with bombers, drones, and Special Forces.
Besides having the potential to provoke resistance from the various Afghan minorities, partitioning would tap into a deep reservoir of nationalistic fervor, and almost certainly be perceived as an American idea intended to dilute or otherwise transform Afghan sovereignty for U.S. benefit.

And the idea of the United States accepting Taliban control of the Pashtun south presupposes Taliban acceptance of the conditions of a new U.S. military threat if they violated the terms of the agreement. Under such a scenario, we’re not looking at if or whether the Taliban would violate such an agreement; it’s a matter of when. And when that happens, the United States would find itself responding with bombers, drones and Special Forces — most of the same military assets we’re using in country right now. Boots on the ground to follow later, if needed. Boy, there’s nothing like fighting a war twice.

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The only option that makes any sense is the one that prevents the United States from repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War: the option of getting out, extracting our forces from Afghanistan as surgically, as elegantly, as efficiently as possible.

What’s called for isn’t the courage to stay the course in Afghanistan; what’s called for is having the stones to leave — to not be held hostage by the “conditions-based” proviso that could be invoked by hawks in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill indefinitely, forever. President Obama has announced a timetable that begins drawdown in July 2011. He needs to make that happen. Period. If a timetable is to have any meaning, it has to begin sometime. If a timetable’s creator is to have any credibility, he has to be prepared to make that timetable stick.

Even if the first withdrawals are token numbers of forces (1,000 here, 2,000 there) the actual sight of American forces exiting from Afghanistan would have a strong effect on every actor in the Afghan power equation: from the arrogant intransigence of the Karzai government to the ruthless backwardness of the Taliban.

Few things would focus the Karzai government’s attention quite like the evening-news images of American forces leaving Afghanistan. That government would be forced to (among other things) accelerate its participation in the training of the Afghan army and police units. The setting of a firm July 2011 deadline puts the Afghan leadership on notice that the time for Afghans to save Afghanistan is rapidly approaching, and it won’t be postponed by conveniently sudden eruptions of violence.

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How such a measured withdrawal will be seen and interpreted by Islamist extremists can only be a matter of conjecture. In the short term, a U.S. withdrawal will be portrayed as a victory by those extremists, and may embolden them and others to accelerate attacks on the Karzai government.

So be it. Regardless, the United States can’t be indefinitely held hostage to prosecution of a war that was initially well-intentioned but is now practically unsustainable. There are no ideal options; there are only choices that speak to President Obama’s willingness to do what’s best for this nation and this economy. An exit from Afghanistan on a timetable of our choosing may be the most palatable of a plate full of bitter choices.

Having already exhausted about nine years, hundreds of billions of dollars and more than 1,000 lives to this conflict, it’s past time for the United States to reassess its purpose in Afghanistan. It’s time to look clearly at what we can hope to achieve there with a more limited military role, and what we will never achieve in a country of enduring tribal divisions, a panoramically corrupt central government and a long antagonism to foreign intervention — even the presumably enlightened foreign intervention of the United States.

Image credits: Obama in Afghanistan: Pete Souza/The White House. Choppers inbound, Afghanistan: public domain. U.S. war casualties: MSNBC. Obama at Dover transfer facility: Unknown.

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