President Obama’s plans to pull from Iraq are becoming clear. While not quite meeting the sixteen-month deadline he promised on the campaign trail, and intending to keep behind a residual force of 50,000 troops, the end does indeed appear to be in sight. But what about Afghanistan? We were there before Iraq, and it seems that we will be there long after. Our commitment to the chaotic nation — if one can even call it a nation — looks to be another chapter in what has been called, by Dexter Filkins, the Forever War.
Those who believe the president is really anti-war at heart prick up their ears when he insists that “we have no interest or aspiration to be there over the long term”, but his actions speak otherwise. Is sending an additional 17,000 troops — on top of the current 38,000 — a sign that our presence is winding down? When it comes to Afghanistan, Obama has said “we’re not going to have a clear exit strategy”, which says that no exit can be predicted at this time. Expect the reduced forces in Iraq to return home just long enough to be sent into another battlefield, and expect Afghanistan to be a key issue in the 2012 presidential race.
If the Taliban is our primary enemy, we can deduce from the numbers that the enemy is growing stronger. Interior Minister Hanif Atmar estimates between 10,000 and 15,000 Taliban are fighting in Afghanistan, a sizable increase from a couple of years ago, when the same government estimates were 3,000 to 5,000. Many of the Afghan people are also growing restless over the occupation, as evidenced by a recent demonstration in Ghazni province against the United States and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance between America and Europe that turns sixty this month). While our government denies the charges, the Afghans believe NATO had bombed a mosque. Want to stir up religious fanaticism? Destroying sacred sites seems like a fine strategy.
But the question on my mind this month is: what are American objectives in Afghanistan, and are we achieving them? For this answer, we turn to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Gates says that “our strategic objectives [are] an Afghan people who do not provide safe haven for al Qaeda, reject the rule of the Taliban, and support the legitimate government they elected and in which they have a stake.” In another case, he restated the objectives. “Our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and its allies.” Journalist Fareed Zakaria calls this “an admirably clear statement” — but is it? How do we go about achieving these objectives, and can we?
The American people — let alone the Afghans — don’t seem to believe we can succeed. According to CBS News polls, only 27% of Americans think the war in Afghanistan is going well, down from a peak of 93% in December 2001. 58% of respondents think troop levels should not be increased. And 35% consider Afghanistan the top foreign policy concern, second only to Iraq. While the president and military have no obligation to submit to popular opinion, as Bush II has made clear, the dissenters’ voices should be heard. Are we not dealing with a president who recently declared, “I work for the American people”?
Currently our objectives are failing to be achieved through military occupation. The Taliban is growing, and long term occupation will breed increased resentment and religious extremism. As for supporting the Afghan government, it is difficult to even be sure if they can support themselves. The current president, Hamid Karzai, is scheduled to step down on May 22. While he has called for April elections, in accordance with the constitution, the Election Commission overruled him and the law, scheduling elections for August 20. While this move gives candidates adequate time to campaign, there is the unfortunate side effect of the presidential seat going into limbo. Is Karzai’s term extended? Is an interim president placed in charge, and if so, by what criteria? Or will a power vacuum be created?
Vice President Biden recognizes the problems when he states that the “deteriorating situation in the region poses a security threat from our respect not just to the United States, but to every single nation”, but he fails to see how America is not currently part of the solution. He says, “President Obama and I are deeply committed to NATO.” Setting aside the inherent problems of NATO, this statement further emphasizes that Biden and Obama see solutions in military terms. If we are not fighting a conventional enemy, however, we shouldn’t be using conventional methods. Next month’s column will further deconstruct the flaws in the NATO system.
If military presence has not reduced the religious extremism of the Taliban, what alternative is possible? What objectives should be achieved and how do we achieve them? In the most simple terms, we go back to the idea of “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, something that cannot be done through bullets and bombs.
A leaked Central Command document outlining NATO’s “Master Narrative”, posted by a hacker on Wikileaks.org, insists that the term “compensation” is inappropriate when talking about Afghanistan, and should not be used because the word brings with it legal implications that America would rather not face. Yet, this is precisely the route that will lead to some sort of closure, or at the very least progress. The billions being dumped into the military’s Afghanistan operation will never come back, as the items purchased are literally burned. Why not take the same funds and invest in some sort of infrastructure allowing the Afghan people to become more self-sustaining, politically aware and less dependent on such cash crops as opium?
The greatest lessons on Afghanistan can be learned from the very people who occupied the territory the longest in recent history: the Russians. The Soviet Union troop levels rose to more than 100,000 without being able to subdue a growing insurgency. This suggests that Obama’s troop increase could spark an insurgency increase, with considerably fewer troops than the Russians had. While America is not at risk of collapsing, worth remembering is that Afghanistan was Russia’s Vietnam and drained that country’s resources, financial stability and morale. In fact, no occupying force has successfully managed Afghanistan since Alexander the Great. Which may be because, historically, “Afghanistan” doesn’t exist — the tribal politics of the Pashtun, Uzbek and Tajik peoples have always been more powerful than the succession of weak governments propped up time and time again.
The answer to the Afghanistan problem, according to the Russians, is infrastructure. One retired Russian general suggests military presence should be minimized and used purely as security to protect road projects and irrigation systems. He further suggests that sending in engineers, doctors and architects would be key. This has the added benefit of boosting American jobs for those willing to go overseas — construction jobs may be on the decline here, but are plentiful in a land where the economy is “at a stage lower than the Middle Ages”, according to the general.
Could the solution be as simple as building roads, not bombs? Getting the nation with one of the lowest health and education standards on track by giving them schools and clinics? Certainly secular education could defeat extremism where aggression cannot, and a people with medical care would be less likely to fall into even greater poverty, where they become susceptible to jihadists. While there’s no guarantee this strategy will work, it is becoming abundantly clear our current strategy does not. President Obama, this would be change we can believe in.