Obama speech: kicking the can down the road in Afghanistan
But at least by establishing a withdrawal date in Afghanistan, Obama put Kabul on notice to start solving its own problems.
Many decades ago, as a fledgling CIA officer in the field, I was naively convinced that if the facts were reported back to Washington correctly, everything else would take care of itself in policymaking.Skip to next paragraph
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The first loss of innocence comes with the harsh recognition that "all politics are local" and that overseas realities bear only a partial relationship to foreign-policy formulation back home.
So in President Obama's new policy directions for Afghanistan, what goes down in Washington politics far outweighs analyses of local conditions. I had hoped that Obama would level with the American people that the war in Afghanistan is not being won, indeed is not winnable within any practicable framework.
Obama possesses the intelligence and insight to grasp these realities. But such an admission – however accurate – would sign the political death warrant of a president to be portrayed as having snatched defeat out of the jaws of "victory."
The "objective" situation in Afghanistan remains a mess. The details are well known. Senior commanders acknowledge that we are not now winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan; indeed, we never can, and certainly not at gunpoint.
Most Pashtuns will never accept a US plan for Afghanistan's future. The non-Pashtuns – Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc. – naturally welcome any outside support in what is a virtual civil war. America has inadvertently ended up choosing sides. US forces are perceived by large numbers of Afghans as an occupying army inflicting large civilian casualties. The struggle has now leaked into Pakistan – with even higher stakes.
Obama's policies would seem an unsatisfying compromise among contending arguments. Thirty thousand more troops will not turn the tide; arguably they present more American targets for attack. They will heighten traditional xenophobia against foreigners traipsing through Pashtun villages and homes. It is a fool's errand to persuade the locals in Pashtun territory that the Taliban are the enemy and the US is their friend.
Whatever mixed feelings Pashtuns have toward the Taliban, they know the Taliban remain the single most important element of Pashtun political life; the Taliban will be among them long after Washington tires of this mission.
The strategy of the Bush era envisioned Afghanistan as a vital imperial outpost in a post-Soviet dream world where hundreds of overseas US bases would cement US global hegemony, keeping Russia and China in check and the US on top. That world vision is gone – except to a few Washington diehards who haven't grasped the new emerging global architectures of power, economics, prestige, and influence.
The Taliban will inevitably figure significantly in the governance of almost any future Afghanistan, like it or not. Future Taliban leaders, once rid of foreign occupation, will have little incentive to support global jihadi schemes – they never really have by choice. The Taliban inherited bin Laden as a poison pill from the past when they came to power in 1996 and have learned a bitter lesson about what it means to lend state support to a prominent terrorist group.
The Taliban with a voice in power will have every incentive to welcome foreign money and expertise into the country, including the Pashtun regions – as long as it is not part of a Western strategic package. An austere Islamic regime is not the ideal outcome for Afghanistan, but it is by far the most realistic. To reverse ground realities and achieve a markedly different outcome is not in the cards and will pose the same dilemma to Obama next year.