President Obama: Please Don’t Do It!

The morning papers announced that Secretary Robert Gates is ordering up to an additional 20,000 American troops (3-4 brigades) into Afghanistan for what he describes as “some protracted period of time.” This action is compatible with incoming President Obama’s repeated statements of preference on the subject, and presumably Obama signed off on the increases when he convinced Secretary Gates to remain at his post. Doing so is a mistake that will not improve the situation or the achievement of America’s goals in southwest Asia. Rather, it is more likely to further entrap the United States in the swirling maelstrom that is Afghanistan and turn an ill-conceived protracted involement into President Obama’s Vietnam and possibly even drag down his presidency. Please, Mr. Obama, don’t do it!

The inadvisability of expanding America’s role in Afghanistan has been a recurring theme in this space. The central theme of the message has been that the United States cannot possibly win a military victory (whatever that means) or achieve the more important political goal of helping an anti-terrorist (anti-Al Qaeda) regime prevail, thereby contributing to America’s only real valid objective in the region, which is the eradication of Al Qaeda.

 Unfortunately, the United States bungled its best chance at doing so in late 2001 and instead bumbled its way into an ongoing civil war in Afghanistan, at least part of the impetus for which is continuing American presence. In the process, the United States has helped to create two unfortunate outcomes: the fate of the Karzai government is now inextricably linked to his support by the NATO coalition of which the United States is leader, and it has fueled ongoing support for the loose coalition of largely Pashtun groups who collectively are described as the Taliban.  The former error means many Afghans consider Karzai an American puppet and oppose him on that ground; the latter implies that American presence serves as a poster child for Taliban recruitment. More American troops will not defuse those conditions; it will make them worse.

The real reason the U.S. will fail in its attempt to transform Afghanistan into an anti-terrorist bastion is because the effort runs directly in the face of Afghan history. A strong anti-Al Qaeda Afghanistan requires a strong central government in Kabul, and that is something Afghanistan has never had. Wny? Because Afghanistan is so fractionalized that such an arrangement is unacceptable to the majority of the people, regardless of who is running it. Combine that problem with the long-held Afghan antipathy for foreign invaders and occupiers, and it is hard to conceptualize how the United States could possibly prevail in any meaningful sense. Secretary Gates is known for his advocacy of avoiding American involvement in unwinnable wars, and Afghanistan is the current prototype of just that kind of war. There is a significant disconnect here.

Moreover, ramping up American physical presence in Afghanistan will largely negate the calming effect in the region of American withdrawal from Iraq. Except for those elites who believe Amercian forces keeps them in power, most people in the region want the United States physically out of the region–at least in a military sense. Drawing down, not ramping up, U.S. presence in Afghanistan will actually increase American leverage to negotiate in the region, including the ability to get the Taliban to talk to us and possibly even to gain their help in dealing with Al Qaeda on both sides of the Durand Line. Less American force in the area will also have some calming influence in Pakistan, where there is great opposition to American incursions across the border to pursue Al Qaeda.

The counter argument, of course, is that American forces are necessary to pursue Al Qaeda and that removing them would in effect declare defeat in the war on terror and embolden America’s adversaries. That argument may puff up some people’s chests, but it runs aground the facts that American forces have not succeeded in destroying Al Qaeda for over seven years and that their deployment in Afghanistan does not do much to aid that quest. Removing American ground forces from Afghanistan, moreover,, does not mean the United States forfeits all measures of power projection in the region; it just gets American forces out of the cross-hairs of the Afghans and as an irritant in that country.

Hardly anyone is yet moving the term “quagmire” from Iraq to Afghanistan, but the course is being set for such a transference. It is a mistake, because it will not work and will taint the new administration by committing it to a virtually endless, unwinnable campaign. George W. Bush will forever be known largely for “Mr. Bush’s War” in Iraq. Does Barack Obama want Afghanistan to be known as “Mr. Obama’s War” and the centerpiece of his legacy? Please Mr. Obama, don’t do it!

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