Astray in Afghanistan

Although, by any reasonable measure the situation in Afghanistan is worsening steadily – a corrupt government, rigged elections, a resurgent Taliban – instead of reconsidering its military mission (which costs the American taxpayer almost $4 billion each month) the Obama administration has decided to double down on its military engagement in the country. Since coming into office, President Obama has added 21,000 troops and committed billions more to the military presence in Afghanistan, strangely undeterred by the country’s dark reputation as a “graveyard of empires.”

The last great power to be brought down by underestimating what it takes to subdue Afghanistan was the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1980s the Red Army fought a shadowy guerrilla enemy which was heavily financed by covert military aid from America and Saudi Arabia. But instead of reconsidering the mission when it was still possible to withdraw without conceding defeat, they dug themselves in deeper each time they faced a setback. Soon enough, just as the Saudis, Americans and mujahedin had hoped, the Soviets had built a Vietnam of their own, one that played a major part in the eventual collapse of the Communist empire.

Apparently, the US military believes that the country is now more susceptible to military pressure. The senior generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have both argued that a larger military presence will shift the odds in their favour, even though the fighting has now become bloodier than at any point in the last eight years. Generals may develop new strategies, but presidents have to live with the political fallout. Recent polls indicate that a majority of the American public no longer approve of the war in Afghanistan – in which the US army has now been engaged for longer than its involvement in both world wars combined. But there seems little hope that the current escalation is likely to be curtailed any time soon. The coalition presence in Afghanistan is already around 100,000 – but far more will be needed if the Obama administration really intends to take on al Qaeda and the Taliban as it has promised.

During his campaign, candidate Obama made much of the fact that he did not support “dumb wars” like the one in Iraq – but he backed military action in Afghanistan as an example of the “right war.” That was then. In its final year, the Bush administration’s neglect of Afghanistan during 2008, left it prey to the lucrative international drugs trade (the country currently produces more than 90 per cent of the world’s heroin) and infighting among local warlords. This has undermined the Karzai government’s credibility, and encouraged further intrigues from Pakistan’s ISI, and the deteriorating situation in Baluchistan, Waziristan and other tribal areas, has now turned the Af-Pak conflict into a confusing multi-front theatre in which there are few clearly definable goals, and an awful lot of room for mission creep and the dreaded Vietnam syndrome of a military “quagmire.”

Now that he is commander in chief, there is plenty of evidence that Afghanistan has become a “dumb war”; after a temporary setback the Taliban has been very successful at spreading violence to all parts of the country, inter-tribal tensions are increasing, and the government’s power barely extends beyond Kabul – few analysts doubt that it would collapse without foreign support. Ironically, the Karzai government’s bungled rigging of the recent elections seems to have been driven largely by its desire to regain credibility in the eyes of an administration which it increasingly views as hostile. But the election fraud has now created a new double-bind for the Americans. If the Pashtun Karzai is allowed to keep power through blatantly rigged elections, all the promises about democratizing Afghanistan begin to sound awfully similar to Bush’s hollow rhetoric in Iraq; but, if they press too hard for transparency, and appear to be installing Dr Abdullah Abdullah (whose mother is Tajik), then they run the danger of opening up a completely new set of unwanted internal ethnic unrest.

In 2003, the Taliban controlled 30 of Afghanistan’s 364 districts; at the end of last year that number had risen to 164. Coalition efforts to displace them have succeeded, but largely because the Taliban are willing to trade space for time. Knowing that the Obama administration needs to produce results before the mid-term elections, they are playing a waiting game with the Americans. The Pakistan military’s successful push against Taliban troops in the Swat valley, raises hopes that the tide can be turned, but a closer look at the situation suggests that there too, Taliban forces, far from being defeated, chose to carry out a strategic retreat.

Military progress within Afghanistan is often ephemeral. After a month of intensive fighting in Helmland province – ostensibly to encourage voting in ‘free and fair’ elections, not only did less than 10 per cent of the electorate attend the polls, but Karzai supporters then engaged in utterly shameless rigging – thereby confirming all the Taliban’s wild allegations that democracy is a sham which will be used to subjugate the country to a puppet with Western sympathies. The American taxpayer is not likely to tolerate more disappointments like this.

President Obama seems doomed either way. If he yields to common sense and scales down the mission, he will be branded a defeatist. But if he continues to escalate, he runs the risk of stumbling further into a costly, confused and probably unwinnable conflict. His growing reluctance to dismantle the massive national security state of the Bush years, or to question the military who always seem to have plans remarkably similar to ones which have just failed, are signs that he is losing his intellectual independence. Unfortunately, the mid-term elections wait for no man. Unless this President can pull a rabbit out of the tattered hat left behind by his predecessor, he too will likely become yet another victim of imperial overreach in Afghanistan.

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