Saturday, November 07, 2009

For What Purpose?

I made my weekly foray to Watching America and was absolutely astounded and delighted to find one of the most cogent summaries of the dilemma President Obama faces with respect to the war in Afghanistan I have seen yet.

The article is from Pakistan's Dawn and is written by Khalid Aziz, chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research & Training in Peshawar. Mr. Aziz was more concerned with Pakistan's role in the conflict, and understandably so, but he did point out some of the reasons why President Obama's decision is going to be so difficult.

The first reason Mr. Aziz offered is that the president is being offered widely divergent opinions that cannot be easily reconciled:

When President Barack Obama took office he commissioned an inter-agency review of US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recommendations emerging from this review were issued in a white paper.

The paper reflected opinions held by disparate groups in the highly saturated think-tank world of Washington, yet it lacked consistency and proposed contradictory policies, thus leading to more confusion rather than bringing clarity to the policy debate. After the publication of the white paper, US policy in the region is in disarray.

In other words, depending on political ideology and the closeness of the next election, your mileage may vary. Adding to the problem is that President Obama made it clear during his election campaign that he supported the war in Afghanistan because it was the good war, one that we were entitled to wage because that nation harbored the villain of 9/11. However, in the eight years that followed 9/11, the Bush administration decided to leverage the attack from Afghanistan to one on Iraq, and it thereafter ignored Afghanistan, prolonging what I believe to have been a stupid move to begin with. That means we have lost ground, disastrously so.

But back to the disarray Mr. Aziz has found. His position is that until the Obama White House finally decides just what the goal is for this war, the US will be bogged down and thousands of people will die needlessly:

The issue of Afghanistan has been confounded due to the existence of contradictory policy prescriptions. Thus to clear the mess the first step that President Obama must take is to simplify the argument and ask himself what the core goal of the US is in Afghanistan. Is it nation-building or is it to win the war against Al Qaeda to prevent a threat to the US mainland?

Both options call for a different approach and their mixing in the short term adds to the confusion and makes building a successful strategy impossible. Thus President Obama must find answers to some basic questions before a clear path can emerge in the policy quagmire of Afghanistan.

Mr Obama’s problems began with the publication of the white paper because it advocated contradictory prescriptions as objectives. For instance, its first recommendation was to disrupt terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This meant undertaking counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban. However in the context of Afghanistan, where the state and the army are weak, the US has so far relied on indigenous strongmen or warlords. ...

Yet one of the core requirements of a successful counter-insurgency strategy calls for establishing the credibility and legitimacy of government operations. If the government’s security forces are the vassals of drug barons how can they compete successfully against the Taliban, who base their appeal on the rectitude of their leaders?

It appears that winning the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan is out of the question. If nation-building in Afghanistan is not possible then the only option left for the US would be to undertake a counter-terrorism strategy till other options become available. Such a decision will entail the deployment of US forces at strategic points like Kandahar in the south, Herat in the west, Kunduz in the north and Jalalabad and Kunar in the east.

To be fair, President Obama inherited not only the war but also the proponents and prosecutors of that war, including General McChrystal. The cry from that side is that more troops will turn the tide, just as it did in Iraq with "The Surge" (yeah, right...). As the number of US casualties climb, as they have and surely will continue to do so, he will not have the luxury of pointing back to his predecessors.

At this point, according to Mr. Aziz, the best the president can hope for is Pakistani assistance, but only if the US goes back to the original causus belli for the war: the elimination of Al Qaeda from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. For him to do so, however, will require that the US admit that it cannot rebuild Afghanistan as a Western style democracy as long as it supports the war/drug lords. And that means he will have to repudiate the strategy and tactics of not only the military, but also the CIA.

Whether President Obama has the courage to make that the central basis of his decision is open for question, and, frankly, at this point, I am not optimistic.

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