Is Afghanistan Obama’s Iraq?

This is, of course, an unpleasant question whose timing may appear to be trying to rain on the inaugural parade, but it must be asked anyway. The immediate impetus for so doing is the interview that Admiral Michael Mullen, the current (and 17th) Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff had with the news magazine show “60 Minutes” last night, in which the prospect was broached.

Admiral Mullen was asked to summarize the situation in Afghanistan. He repeated his assertion that currently the United States is losing the conflict, a position he has previously taken publicly. When asked if the addition of 30,000 additional American troops would change the situation and help lead to “victory” (carefully undefined), his response was equivocal. On one hand, he said the additions would help, but he did not go so far as to say the added troops (60,000 Americans total added to about 30,000 from other NATO countries) would be decisive. He DID say, however, that they would not be decisive unless the pipeline that was producing additional enemy combatants in Pakistan was not cut off. If that flow is not stopped, he suggested additional forces could not succeed; if the flow is stopped, they might succeed. No guarantees.

This assessment should give pause to incoming President Obama and the advisors who are asking him to adopt the war. Obama himself has made a public record of support for the effort in arguing that Afghanistan is more important than Iraq (arguably true) and that the failure to be successful in Afghanistan is the result of diverting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq. That assertion is no more than partially true. Making Afghanistan the second fiddle certainly has kept the United States from a maximum effort there. At the same time, that neglect may have kept the U.S. from overcommitting to an unwinnable quagmire in Afghanistan that added American forces may create anyway.

There are at least three reasons for a pessimistic assessment, two of which have already been raised in this space. One is the question of scale. After the new deployment, there will be about 90,000 foreign forces in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, the Soviets had over 150,000 forces there, and they failed to pacify a defiant country. How many would it take? Presumably a very large number–more than the U.S. or its allies is likely to commit.

Second, it is not clear that the U.S. can prevail under any circumstances. The Afghans, after all, are very good at repelling foreign invaders. In fact, it may the one thing they are very excellent at, as the British and Russians have most recently learned from direct experience. One of the major purposes of education, it is said, is to learn vicariously rather than directly from the lessons and mistakes of others. Is the United States so ineducable that it must learn this painful lesson on its own? Will Obama be the victim of this process?

Third, Mullen’s assessment suggests the key to having a chance in Afghanistan is to shut off the flow of troops trained in Pakistan. Who is going to do the dual tasks–shutting down training facilities and rounding up the troops they produce–implied? The Pakistan military almost certainly cannot do so. If required to, they will fail, and the result will be political turmoil: rebellion in the FATA among the Pashtuns who live there, and discontent in the rest of Pakistan over the army’s failure. The Army, in addition, is unlikely to be very enthused about being forced into a mission for which it knows it is ill-suited. If the Paks can’t do the job, who will? Will the United States have to invade? Now there is a truly scary prospect.

What this says, if one takes Mullen at his word, is that the only way possibly–but just possibly–to materially improve the situation in Afghanistan is to make the situation measurably worse in Pakistan. Which country is more important to the U.S., Afghanistan or Pakistan? Clearly, the answer is not Afghanistan. Hasn’t someone who whispers to the new president not pointed this out? If not, President Obama is, to revive an old phrase, “cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”

The Obama ascendancy is being viewed by many (myself included) with great hope and enthusiasm. Afghanistan, however, represents a very large and dark cloud hanging over the parade. The last thing that the new president wants–or should want–is for Afghanistan to become “Mr. Obama’s War.” Instead of stoking the fires with more troops, the new Obama team should be looking for ways to disengage militarily from Afghanistan, not seeing how to deepen an unwinnable conflict. That effort should be accompanied by an increasingly furtive drive to negotiate withe the parties, which means the less radical elements of the Pashtuns and Taliban, to find a modus vivendi with which the United States can live: an Afghanistan that does not harbor Al Qaeda but which decides for itself who and how it will be ruled. That is the most that the United States can realistically hope for in this situation, and it is not an outcome that can be delivered by the American military. No matter how hard and well the military tries, all it can do is to produce in Afghanistan another Iraq with Obama’s name on it.


2 Responses to “Is Afghanistan Obama’s Iraq?”

  1. Hey Prof. I took your foreign policy class a few years ago and it was one of the best I ever had in college. I am glad you’re keeping this blog as you’re able to boil this stuff down so any regular guy (like me) can understand it. I look forward to hearing more about what you have to say over the next four years. Please keep writing.


  2. i agree wit dano i was in ur class 2. Ttyl later prof.

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