Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Middle Course On Afghanistan

The President has a rough road on Afghanistan. It was not his war (and yet, 10 months into his Presidency, it is). The indefatigable neocons are pushing, in muscular language, for an escalation; the left for disengagement. Barack Obama is enough of a scholar of recent American history to know that if Vietnam taught us anything it is that American disengagement from a war will be perceived by our enemies as a victory. It will be exploited for recruitment and, most important, it casts the country into a psychological malaise. And with the economy as it is, it could precipitate the already jarring decline of American power. The neoconservative taunting from the cheap seats -- led by resident neocon psychologist Charles Krauthammer -- has already begun. Continued unemployment or a double-dip recession along with a troop pullout could spiral America into the kind of declinist thinking that dominated in the 1970s (culminating in a conservative realignment in the 80s with Ronald Reagan)

Clearly, President Barack Obama does not want to be the Democrat, the Jimmy Carter, that cedes leadership on national security issues to the Republican party for another generation. There is also the question of nuclear weapons in Pakistan. Although it is oddly not mentioned nearly enough by the President, it has to be the top priority. Nuclear proliferation, or, worse, Al Qaeda gaining access to one or some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons is a nightmare scenario. Perhaps the President doesn't use that argument in his rhetorical arsenal is because he wants to tone down the fear-mongering that was a hallmark of the Bush era.

The prospects of "victory" in Afghanistan are small. "No outside force has, since the Mongol invasion, ever pacified the entire country," wrote our bete noir Kissinger in Newsweek. "Even Alexander the Great only passed through." If any "victory" could be achieved it would cost an amount of treasure that might be unacceptable to the American public considering the present state of the economy. Finally, the indepenedents -- a libertarian lot with strong national defense loyalties -- are leaving in droves and the only way to keep them in the President's increasingly shaky coalition is to accept the hawkish bits of McChrystal's recommendations. But this could prove the straw that broke the camel's back for his Progressive base which voted for "Change." In other words, Barack Obama is in one hell of a hard position.

Washington Post military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks, who was on Fareed Zakaria's GPS came up with the interesting idea. It grew out of a discussion between the two on Nuristan:

Zakaria: Tell me exactly why we're in Nuristan. I understand why we're in Afghanistan, but why in this part of Afghanistan?

Is this really counterinsurgency you guys are doing up there, or are you simply sticking your fist into a hornet's nest?

ZAKARIA: So, let's delve into that.

The argument would be made, if we were not to be here -- if we were to, say, cede these areas, which are very sparsely populated, there are very few people -- the argument is the Taliban will assert control there. Potentially, al Qaeda or other terrorist groups could set up training camps, and things like that.

What's wrong with that argument?

RICKS: There's nothing wrong with it. That's probably what would happen.

But I think what you're seeing is General McChrystal considering, given the limited number of troops I'm going to have, what's the best use of them?

One use might be, OK, let's pull back from those areas and focus on an ink spot, classic counterinsurgency approach -- Kabul, the Khost bowl, the area southeast of Kabul, and Kandahar. Put your troops, put your resources there, and do classic counterinsurgency there...

ZAKARIA: That is, provide security for the people there, and that is the vast bulk of the population of Afghanistan.

RICKS: Exactly.

And then, in more rural areas, pull your troops back, do a kind of triage, but use counter-terror against them.

ZAKARIA: So, if you saw a terrorist base being set up in Nuristan, go in with attack helicopters, destroy it, but get back out.

RICKS: Yes. I would call this, do the Biden plan for areas like Nuristan, do the Petraeus plan for areas like the major cities and other population areas.

ZAKARIA: What does it say about the Taliban and its military tactics? When you watch what you're describing, should we be wowed by the level of sophistication? Or is this just street smarts?

RICKS: I think we've consistently underestimated Afghans.

I used to live there when I was a teenager. And one thing I learned there is...

ZAKARIA: You lived in Afghanistan when you were...

RICKS: Yes, from 1969 to '71, in Kabul. My father was a professor at Kabul University for two years. I was actually a member of the Afghan ski patrol, junior grade, and skied in the Salang Pass.

A lot of Afghans, though, are illiterate. Illiterate does not mean stupid. In fact, I'm not even sure it means uncultured.

The average Afghan probably knows more poetry by heart than hardly anyone in America. You can run into Afghan tribesmen who know hundreds of poems and thousands of proverbs. And we would consider in their conversation quite literate.

Even when I lived there, it seemed to me that guerrilla warfare was the Afghan national sport.

One of my favorite books on this region is by John Masters. It's called "Bugles and a Tiger." It's a memoir of being a British officer with a Gurkha regiment in Waziristan in the 1930s. At the end of that last war that the British had there, the Afghan cousins showed up rather angrily and confronted him.

"Where are our medals," they said.

He said, "Well, you were the enemy."

And they said, "No, no. You gave medals to the Pashtuns on your side. We want our medals, too. You couldn't have had a good war without us."

This is very much the Afghan attitude. This is a kind of sporting event for them in many ways."

In other words: "Why not do the Petraeus plan [counterinsurgency] for the major population centers and the Biden plan [counterterrorism] for the rest of the country?" Thoughts? Comments?

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