In a month’s time Obama will descend on NATO at its Brussels HQ and demand that the Europeans help out. Well before then, Obama will have on his desk the interagency review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan that he has requested. We should be able to guess its bias, if not every details of its contents. It is being chaired by Bruce Riedel. He is a former CIA officer and a senior advisor to three US presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues.
We know his views (and they are easily accessible on the Brookings website). My first reaction on reading them is why on earth didn’t Obama give the job to his old mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski or to Brent Scowcroft, the wise owl of Republican administrations (but not the last one). Why choose some lower level official who is used to being bossed around and told what to do? Both Brzezinski and Scowcroft have experience in standing close to a president and also, when necessary, standing up to him.
The answer, I fear, is that the two most practised men on foreign policy (excepting perhaps Henry Kissinger who has already made his doubts on Afghanistan policy clear) wouldn’t tow the White House party line. Obama made the decision to raise the stakes in Afghanistan and Pakistan way back in the campaign. Was it to counterbalance his withdrawal-from-Iraq position to show that he wasn’t soft on the use of military power abroad, rather as Bill Clinton used the expansion of NATO to win crucial votes in the mid-west from Poles and other Eastern Europeans in the diaspora, even though hardly anyone in the foreign affairs community either in the US or Europe was calling for it?
Riedel does say some sensible things: “The war in Afghanistan is going badly, the southern half of the country is in chaos… and in Pakistan, the jihadist Frankenstein monster that was created by the Pakistani army and Pakistani intelligence service is now increasingly turning on its creators.” And he goes on to say that the missile attacks inside Pakistan “have a counterproductive element in them… the American brand image has been badly eroded.” But we know all that.
So what does he advocate as a solution? The momentum of the Taliban “has to be broken.” He advocates more troops.
A shrewd guess is this is how the report will turn out, with a promise that the commitment is not open ended and that the burden for the long run must fall on the soldiers of a well-trained and equipped Afghan security force.
Is that an exit strategy? Hardly. In Vietnam President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger tried that policy of trying to turn things over to a local army. In the end the Americans had to be evacuated from the roof of the American embassy. The war had devastated the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. It destroyed his ambitions and plans for a “Great Society,” one that would do many of the things in social policy that Obama is now intent on doing.
Is all this forgotten or is Obama a little too young to have all this seared on his soul? I fear so.
Why should the Americans and NATO have any more luck in Afghanistan than the Red Army? The Soviets put their best troops into Afghanistan. Only fools try and belittle the quality of Soviet troops. Historians tell us it was the Red Army who did the most to defeat Hitler.
The Western troops may have more fire power today but in the terrain of Afghanistan where the Taliban know every creek and molehill they have as much chance as did the Americans up against the Vietcong who knew every tree in the jungle.
It is time to find another way? Withdraw most of the military. Leave behind peacekeepers and switch them into blue helmets by order of the UN Security Council. Ask Interpol to bring in its best detectives to track down Osama bin Laden. It needs the backbone of them to be people who speak Pashto, although the FBI and Scotland Yard can give advice on the spot on forensic techniques and all the modern technology of big-time police forces. There are clues around − I recall former president, Pervez Musharraf, telling me of one − the use of dollars in parts on the border areas.
But he hadn’t the guts to stand up to the Americans on an alternative to war. His country needed American money. And still does, alas.