What Obama Didn't--And What We Should--Learn From The War In Afghanistan
By Barry Rubin
I am in favor of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but I was fascinated--in a negative way--with how President Barack Obama handled the issue. He didn't deal with any of the real issues or the consequences. It was a speech by someone who doesn't understand what's been going on in Afghanistan or the world generally, a man with no real background in international affairs or military matters.
Let's review briefly. The United States attacked Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government that was involved in the September 11 attack on America and to wipe out al-Qaida, the group that did the attack, in that country. At some point, the mission was mistakenly changed into an inevitably failed nation-building effort.
The American effort was handicapped by:
-The difficulty of the terrain and society, probably the most difficult to transform into a modern democracy of any country in the world. A key problem was also the deeprootedness of radical Islamism in the society and worldview of the population.
--The lack of a strong Afghan ally and instead working with a weak, corrupt, disorganized Afghan government whose power was very much limited by ethnic and factional disputes as well as the local authority of strong warlords.
--The ignorance of Americans about Afghan society, their (praiseworthy but counterproductive under local conditions) moral restraint, their handicap as infidels, and their inability to deal with--or even discuss honestly--the Islamism problem.
--Sabotage by a highly paid Pakistani government much of which is on the side of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida.
None of these points was dealt with by Obama and it is quite possible he doesn't understand them, especially because he followed the absurd nation-building, win-hearts-and-minds strategy for 2.5 year and put generals in command who advocated it.
No matter how courageous and competent were the U.S. soldiers there, they could not convert Afghanistan into a stable, democratic, modern society.
Nor has he suggested new srategies to cope with these issues. All he's doing is withdrawing, a move that is going to be domestically popular. Again, the United States should withdraw but what are its strategic goals in doing so, what is its post-troop strategy?
The U.S. priority should be simple: keep the Taliban out of power; kill and destroy al-Qaida wherever it rears its head. How to do that? Pay off and back tough forces in Afghanistan who, also for their own interests, will fight these enemies. Use pressure on Pakistan to get the most out of that false ally. None of that was analyzed either.
Thus, the American people were given no useful information and the Obama Administration has no real strategy. When one watches the administration's approach, it only confirms the idea that this government is totally incompetent and much of it has no grasp of international affairs, realpolitik, or military issues. And those in the White House simply don't listen to those in the State and Defense departments who do.
Incidentally, something truly amazing happened after Obama's speech that I've seen reported but not highlighted. Generals interviewed on the record at the Pentagon stated that they thought they could work with the plan though there were concerns the pace of withdrawal might endanger troops. In other words, high-ranking officers publicly criticized the president's strategy albeit in a framework of being nominally supportive. I've never seen anything like this before and it is a measure of how truly upset the U.S. military command must be at Obama's handling of issues. A few years from now this will come out in books and people will be astonished by the military's anger and incredulity at Obama's policies.
For 2.5 years, then, Obama followed the wrong policy in Afghanistan. Now he is revising the policy in a politically dictated manner but without any broader vision. And most of the mass media, in its rush to reflect and confirm Obama's glory, missed all of these points.
But there are three more points that must be mentioned. First, there is the kind of thing that marks the difference between ordinary incompetence and the dangerous incompetence of the Obama White House. This president has opened negotiations with the Taliban--against the will of the Afghan government!--claiming that part of it is moderate.
In other words, just as it helped bring down Egypt's government against the will of America's Arab allies and is helping the Palestinian Authority against Israel'sinterests, and been supportive of Venezuela against America's Latin American friends, and let Russia get away with misbehavior against U.S. friends in Central Europe and the south Caucasus, he's doing the same thing with Afghanistan.
Ordinary incompetence is not fully protecting one's own interests. The Obama version is voluntarily and actively to undermine one's own interests. That's the difference between this president and all of his predecessors, including the worst of them.
Second, Obama's "solution" is to turn over the war to the Afghan government. But that's a fantasy. The Kabul regime--incontrast to Iraq's government--is incapable of taking up that burden. It will either collapse--Obama no doubt hopes only after the 2012 election--or lose control of everything outside the capital. I remember a conference I was at in [city deleted] when a pompous fool spoke [name deleted] spoke of how great the war was going and then a brilliant Afghan-American analyst [name deleted] tore him apart with detail after detail showing that the central government was a joke.
Obama thus offered a solution that he should know is simply not true. Thus, he is either mendacious or incompetent. One day the situation will explode in his face or that of his successor.
Finally, Obama called for a priority on nation-building at home in a way that would have led to accusations of isolationism if any Republican had said it. Yet the time for that speech was in January 2009. Who but Obama has been throwing money not only into Afghanistan and Iraq but even extended the overstretched military into a totally unnecessary war in Libya? Who raised spending--not just spending but, far worse, unproductive spending--in the face of a depression and these wars? Who followed a failed policy in Afghanistan for 2.5 years and even intensified that wrong approach?
When a president makes a speech and changes policy, it should be on the basis of what the chief executive has learned and it should be a teachable moment for the general public. Yet Obama isn't holding anything back; he just doesn't understand any of these things himself and cannot either pick the right people to advise him or listen to those who give good advice.