What is Obama defending in Afghanistan?

Obama has to be more specific and systematic about his goals in Afghanistan before we can judge his strategy there

Published August 18, 2009 1:19PM (EDT)

President Barack Obama gave a major speech on the Afghanistan War to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix, Arizona, on Monday. Ironically, the American Taliban was milling around outside the hall with guns as Obama spoke. Others have pointed out that Bush's handlers would never have allowed any such thing. Hell, they unconstitutionally designated 'protest zones.' Anyway, about Afghanistan:

1. Obama reiterated his pledge to get the U.S. out of Iraq: "And we will remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. And for America, the Iraq war will end."

2. He has a new strategy in Afghanistan, announced last March. He makes three points about it:

  • "This strategy recognizes that al Qaeda and its allies had moved their base to the remote, tribal areas of Pakistan" . . . and

  • "This strategy acknowledges that military power alone will not win this war—that we also need diplomacy and development and good governance.

  • "And our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals—to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies."

 These three are praiseworthy points in themselves, but the question is how they work together. I couldn't catch the significance of al-Qaeda's move to northwest Pakistan for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan itself. I agree that the key to success in Afghanistan is diplomacy, development and governance, but worry that the major emphasis being is put on sending more troops there and on highly kinetic military operations? And I'm not sure that the Taliban can be effectively disrupted by military means; why isn't diplomacy being mentioned in this third part?

Obama maintains that the U.S. and NATO troops can protect Afghan villagers from the Taliban. But can about 100,000 foreign troops really provide domestic security to 34 million people? Security is still bad in Iraq, a country of slightly smaller population, and it has on the order 600,000 security forces, between the army, police, interior ministry and U.S. troops. The only plausible end game here is the same as in Iraq-- building up a military that has the training, esprit de corps, and weaponry that will allow it to put down guerrillas and keep order in the country. Although this policy has been decried as analogous to 'Vietnamization,' which failed, actually it might succeed in Afghanistan. The North Vietnamese had Chinese and Russian backing. The Taliban may be suffering declining backing from Pakistan, and if the support of the Salafi Gulf millionaires can be cut off, they would be on the ropes.

Obama seems set for a long haul in Afghanistan: "This will not be quick. This will not be easy." I'm not sure his party will put up with that, or if the American public will either, given the economic crisis and the cost of foreign wars.

He concluded,

But we must never forget. This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.

The critique of this paragraph that I would make is that you don't worry primarily about your enemy's intentions. You worry about his capabilities. You can assume bad intentions. So the questions that have to be asked are about al-Qaeda's capabilities. They don't seem to have a presence in Afghanistan any more to speak of. What is called al-Qaeda in the northwest of Pakistan is often just Uzbek, Tajik and Uighur political refugees who have fled their own countries in the region because their Muslim fundamentalism is not welcomed by those regimes. The old al-Qaeda of Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri appears to have been effectively disrupted. Terrorist attacks in the West are sometimes still planned by unconnected cells who are al-Qaeda wannabes, but I don't see evidence of command and control capabilities by al-Qaeda Central. There is frankly no reason to think that if the anti-Karzai guerrillas did gain more territory in Afghanistan, they would suddenly start hosting al-Qaeda operatives who were sure to bring the West back in once they attacked it.

I can see an argument for trying to build up the Afghan army and see that it has long term funding from the international community until such time as Afghanistan's economy improves enough to pay for it. But I can't see Afghanistan as a threat to US security.

Greg Mills, who has been an adviser in Afghanistan, wrote a column for the CSM which serves as a critique of the president's current talking points. Mills says that U.S. goals in Afghanistan are unclear. If they are to prevent a Taliban takeover of the country, then what NATO and the US are currently doing could succeed. If they are to prevent Afghanistan from reemerging as an al-Qaeda base, they are misplaced, because al-Qaeda is over in Pakistan and anyway it is local cells in the West that are most worrisome for North Atlantic countries. If they are aimed at doing state building in Afghanistan, he says, they are woefully inadequate, and anyway state building is a tall order when you are dealing with the fifth poorest country in the world, which has low literacy, little industry, and little managerial expertise.

Bottom line, Obama has to be more specific and more systematic about his goals in Afghanistan before we can even judge how realistic they are.

Meanwhile, campaigning wrapped up in Afghanistan on Monday, with thousands attending rallies around the country. About 30 candidates are competing for the presidency, but the race is mainly between incumbent Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, and Abdullah Abdullah, whose base is the Tajik (Persian-speaking Sunni) ethnic group.

Abdullah Abdullah's campaign appears in some ways to be emulating the techniques deployed by Mir Hosain Mousavi's organization in Iran last May. On Monday, some 10,000 of Abdullah's supporters poured into an arena in the capital of Kabul to hear him, as helicopters dropped handbills with illustrations instructing the illiterate on how to vote for him. The pilots were later arrested on the grounds that they had invaded the capital's air space without a permit.

Controversially, Gen. Rashid Dostam, the old warlord, campaigned for Karzai in Dostam's home town of Shebarghan in the north. He may deliver hundreds of thousands of votes to the president. Human rights activists are decrying Karzai's increasing dependence on warlords who fought the Soviets, then each other, then the Taliban in the 1980s and until 2001. The incumbent made Muhammad Faheem, a Tajik commander of the Northern Alliance, his running mate as candidate for vice president.

The United States government condemned Karzai's action of bring Dostam back from exile in Turkey, and is unhappy with his drift to the warlords. The Obama administration appears to have come into office in January hoping to find a way to unseat Karzai, whom they consider an ineffective leader, but it seems likely they will be stuck with him for the next 5 years, and that, moreover, he is demonstrating more and more independence of Washington by making a Faustian bargain with the warlords.

This Afghan author writing in Persian rejected the US ambassador's criticism of Dostam's return, saying that the United States has no say about who comes and goes in a sovereign Afghanistan. You wonder if Karzai will get a nationalist bounce from Afghans who know he is bucking Washington.

Karzai is also under fire for quietly passing a law allowing the Hazarah Shiite minority to practice its form of Islamic law, including a provision allowing the husband to coerce his wife into sex against her will, even by denying her food.

There could be a lot of violence on Thursday, election day. The Taliban have threatened violence against Afghans who vote, and foot soldiers have fanned out from Taliban strongholds to provinces where the movement has a lighter footprint, aiming at closing polling stations.

Guerrilla leader Gulbadin Hikmatyar, another old-time warlord who is now fighting the Karzai government and often is inaccurately lumped by Western observers together with the Taliban has made it clear that he will continue his armed struggle as long as there are foreign troops in Afghanistan. Karzai has negotiated with Hikmatyar, who was favored by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, but apparently without success. Many analysts believe that there is no military solution to the problems in southern Afghanistan, and that the only resolution will come through diplomacy. But Hikmatyar is saying that a timetable for NATO and US troop withdrawal would have to be part of that deal.

Aljazeera English has video on the power struggle in Afghanistan, including the return of Gen. Rashid Dostam.

Aljazeera English reports on the Afghans in Pakistan, who will not be allowed to vote in the June 20 presidential election.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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