Why hasn’t the administration of US President Barack Obama broken away from its predecessor’s approach and ended the war in Afghanistan?
A CNN columnist, Ruben Navarretti, wrote this week: “This time, it’s Afghanistan. In one of the most complicated corners of the world, Obama - and his military commanders - are pursuing a troop build-up that has those on the anti-war left shaking their heads. Since taking office, Obama has sent an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan. And more could be on the way. In a recently leaked report to the White House, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, called the situation ’serious’ but insisted that ‘success is achievable’
McChrystal didn’t specifically ask for more troops. But that request is expected soon. Senior Pentagon officials are expected to ask for as many as 45,000 additional American troops this month. Currently, there are about 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
Some conservatives are also expressing reservations about a troop build-up. Most notably, columnist George Will suggested in the Washington Post this week that The Obama administration begin the process of ‘rapidly reversing the trajectory of our involvement in Afghanistan’.
“No fan of nation-building, Will is concerned that the US military strategy of ‘clear, hold and build’ is unworkable. But for Obama, the real worry is how all this is going with the American people and with his liberal base. Thus far, the answer - on both counts - is not very well. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll this week showed that 57 per cent of Americans are opposed to the war in Afghanistan, an increase of 11 percentage points since April.”
If anything, Obama has escalated the conflict by deploying more American soldiers there. And there is every possibility that more soldiers could be sent, in the hope that the insurgency could be defeated. The common argument in favour of the US continuing the war in Afghanistan is that Al Qaeda should not be allowed to reestablish presence in Afghanistan and plot more September 11-style attacks against the US. In reality, militants do not need an entire country to huddle together and plot attacks. A small apartment anywhere in the world would more than serve the purpose.
In expert opinion, the number of Al Qaeda militants sheltering in the tribal belt on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is low. The insurgencies witnessed in Afghanistan and Pakistan are waged by Afghans and Pakistanis with a strictly domestic agenda that has little to do with an international “jihad” against the US that is advocated by Al Qaeda.
Indeed, it is true that anti-US militants could get together in Afghan “safe havens” if (and when) the US military leaves Afghanistan. But that will hold true even without Al Qaeda, and at any point in time, because there is a high level of anti-US sentiment around there, brought about by the policies and posture of successive US governments.
Obama has declared that he is determined to change that, but a four-year US presidency is too short to make a real difference. One might be able to detect a difference in a second term of Obama presidency.
Another argument is that the Afghan war is not as much about Afghanistan as it is about Pakistan.
According to Stephen Biddle, an adviser to the US militarycommander in Afghanistan, Washington fears that Pakistan could fall into “terrorist” hands if the US military does not stay the course in Afghanistan. However, there should be a combination of developments leading to Al Qaeda “taking over” Pakistan, Biddle says. These include the ouster of the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, the downfall of the government of Pakistan and an Islamist regime taking over Islamabad. That would lead to Al Qaeda allies gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Advocates of this theory seem to overlook the obvious. Pakistan is a fairly modern state in many aspects, and the country does have an educated and moderate majority who strongly oppose the hardline Islamists who want to impose themselves on the entire population. It simply means that an elected Islamist government is an impossibility in Pakistan. Furthermore, the country’s powerful military would not allow that to happen. Therefore, the argument that the US could not quit Afghanistan because of fears for Pakistan’s future sounds hollow.
In the meantime, what does the US see as success in Afghanistan?
Obviously, it should include the consolidation of the central government in Kabul and its authority, backed by a strong security force, victory against the Taliban and an improved life for the people of Afghanistan. Buta stable and strong Afghanistan cannot offer a guarantee that Pakistan would not fall into the hands of extremists. Developments within Afghanistan will determine the future of that country, and the same applies to Pakistan.
Surely there are enough brains in Washington to figure out that there could be no such thing that a military victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Everything is stacked against the hope that the US-led international force would overpower the Taliban, befriend the people of Afghanistan, and successfully do some nation building and institutionalisation of the country. If anything, the raging dispute over the results of the August 20 presidential elections and charges of massive fraud have cast a dark cloud over the credibility of the process. That translates into a government without credibility, and no hope for the US to consolidate the central authority in Kabul. Without that foundation, there is no chance whatsoever of moving ahead towards Obama’s goal of stabilising Afghanistan and setting the ground for military withdrawal from the country.
It is an accomplished reality that the US has already lost the war in Afghanistan, but the neoconservatives in Washington are not willing to accept it. They condemn anyone who advocates US withdrawal and describe them as cowards ready to accept defeat. What they overlook is that even a 500,000-strong US-led force in Afghanistan would only be able to hold the lid down on the insurgency. The key to stability in Afghanistan is with the Afghan people, but the fragmentation of the population along ethnic and tribal lines preempts any effort to unify them. And external forces, including Iran, are at work in Afghanistan using proxies with varying interests. They will make sure that the US effort does not succeed.
These are some of the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. They make any hope of winning the war there a pipedream, as those who are pursuing it will soon find out.
*Published in the JORDAN TIMES on Sept. 6.