Afghanistan: Obama’s Conundrum?

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

A close observation of international relations since the emergence of America as a world power will reveal the central use of force as an instrument of power. However, closely tangential with this observation is how central the political calculations of the American President are to initiate, perpetuate or conclude warfare across the globe. A simplistic view of America’s global policy is one which is driven primarily by national interest. A far less explored fact, however, is that a preoccupation with war occupies a rather subtle grey zone. Wars, while generally initiated in professed national interest, often get concluded or are directed at the behest of the commander-in-chief’s ego.

Hence, it is not unusual to witness where the President’s political capital seemingly exhausted, wars begun at his choosing still remains unresolved and unfinished. Vietnam and Iraq wars come to mind. Foreign interventions often at great political risk and of very little apparent pay off to the nation; nonetheless fought at the personal behest (some say stubbornness) of the chief. Many still have an interesting theory of Bosnia as an interesting diversionary war by Bill Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In 2009, we might have one such war on our hands; if the Obama administration does not quickly reconsider its personal investment in the Afghanistan war policy especially as stated during the heady days of the campaign. In the run up to the 2008 elections, candidate Obama running as the peace candidate spoke of just and unjust wars; “dumb and smart wars”. In office it appears, the dark and lonely world of Presidential decision making does not accommodate such trite distinctions. This fact is becoming apparent by the day, as his administration appears to be nearly doubling down on a war he facially committed to during that campaign.

Now in the middle of a congress that is not so open to adding troops to Afghanistan to fight Obama’s war, the President may well abandon his political base to fulfill a personal commitment. Whereas the notion of unjust wars as wasteful and perhaps egoistical is widespread, far less understood is the notion of a just war carried too far becoming deplorable to the national interest on pragmatic grounds. Afghanistan may well qualify. Super powers from the Prussians, to the Mongols, to the Romans and the Brits and their Soviet cousins have been brought to her knees at the behest of Afghanistan unconquerable territory. America might as well be next.

This brings us to a more complex truism. What is the national interest? Is it for example in the national interest to pull out of Iraq without at the minimum obtaining some base to secure future engagement in that region? Or is it better to avoid such provocation of Islamic militants by pulling completely out of Middle East say into a safe position in the Gulf of Aden, securing the national economic interests remotely? Often times, the answers to this inquiry reveal a temperamental view on the intersection of personal ego and national pride. Indeed, a good gauge of that spectrum is a pragmatic, often hard look at the facts at hand to examine if they justify the reasoned conclusion.

In this direction, the hawks might argue that US war in Afghanistan being one of necessity calls for a goal to completely annihilate Al Qaeda. The far dovish kind, may limit parameters for continued operation to such noble concepts like women rights, provision of infrastructure to the Afghan population and building a security force to protect the country population. But are any of these goals necessarily in the national interest or achievable? Consider these salient facts…

Fact: Al Qaeda is not the predominant force in Afghanistan today. Fact: The Taliban is by far the enemy not Al Qaeda. Fact: Tribal interests of the Taliban, dominate Al Qaeda’s global ambition in this region. Fact: Al Qaeda is a nebulous organization that is probably far more established in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than say Afghanistan. Fact: Even an open ended war is unlikely to completely remove Al Qaeda from the tribal and ungovernable regions of Central Asia. In light of these, is the hawkish goal of annihilating Al Qaeda achievable or pragmatic? Will the same goal be applicable say to a far globally ambitious ally of Al Qaeda that the Taliban evidently is?

On the dovish end of the spectrum, analysts are of near uniform agreement that the government of President Karzai is corrupt and ineffective. Hence, use of developmental aid to prop that regime up is a losing concept. Providing security in a tribal dominated system of intrigues and power play is also more difficult than it initially appears. Heads or tail, US objectives face significant obstacles. Considering the Obama administration policy, which is often said to be a revised format of the Bush policy that ceased earlier in the year, one realizes that a hybrid of the dovish and hawkish views on Afghanistan can inevitably lead to a worst of both world scenario as described above.

Or is this the case of campaign promises coming to bite? Obama in positioning himself as the peace candidate welded himself ideologically to the left for political support, while positioning his Afghanistan policy as hawkish in a nod to the pragmatic middle or right to remain viable at the general election. Perhaps, it is now incumbent on President Obama to severe ties with candidate Obama if he wishes to take control of this war, and avoid the doomsday scenario painted above. One with no good solutions! (Did anyone say Iraq?)

One may argue with the national economic interest at stake in Afghanistan, which was not in doubt in Iraq, but the security imperatives are real. Serious policy makers are certain that Afghanistan vulnerability for use as a base for repeat terrorist attacks on America: if it is not secured or stabilized is real.

Perhaps, there is a third way. To explore such, the President and his advisors must explore real concerns well outside the establishment circles. In Afghanistan, history beckons as a compass to the future. The complex history of Afghanistan reveals a fiercely independent territory, that is hard to govern and nearly impossible to conquer. Right down from Genghis Khan, to Alexander the Great, Great Britain up until the Soviet Union the territory of Afghanistan has been a hard one to crack. Imagine Afghanistan as the top level in the video game of global conquest that is yet to be completed at previous attempts.

Well a quick exploration of this fact should give President Obama pause on his stated goal of nation building. Is it truly possible to “nation build” in Afghanistan? Without becoming readily available target practice for disgruntled Taliban elements? I doubt it. Is it possible to build a strong central government over a region largely ruled by a complex patch of tribal warlords over centuries? Does the American public have the staying power (in support of such effort) of say 200 years it will likely take to even attempt replacing the tribal structures? Without debt that will cripple its economy? Is a better alternative accepting the reality of tribal governance, and then build a system of indirect rule to at least mitigate the threats terrorism?

Such strategy may in many ways require:

1. A minimal footprint for US forces, albeit decisive in form of a military base situated in the capital Kabul focused on training Afghan security forces, conducting special operations to flush remnant of Al Qaeda forces and securing the central leadership. While this will anger the left, it becomes necessary given (2) below.

2. Acknowledgement of the tribal hierarchy of Afghan society. A designation of the central government with some form of grant disbursing responsibility may very well confer limited legitimacy while doing away with pretensions to central control.

3. An international commitment to provide security and legitimacy to the central government. This is a win-win; what will cost less blood and some money. Indeed, if Kabul is secured and gain economically, the hinterland will soon be emptying into the city thereby overtime diminishing the power of the tribes.

While some will criticize transforming Karzai from an unreliable figurehead to an actual prefect on behalf of the “global interest”, the end goals of security without quagmire may well be within reach with this approach. But perhaps we all might be missing the point. May be this is CIA’s war; something that should be approached much the same war the Contra Affair was. At least, if the internal schisms of the Afghans are exploited, it is unlikely they will have much time to accommodate external aggression against the US. Regardless, a million dollar for one soldier is a cost the credit side of the US budget cannot simply sustain.

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