Afghanistan: Malia & Sasha’s New Adopted Sibling

More and more a cost-benefit analysis reasons in favor of leaving Afghanistan. Now, each month, the war costs around $3.6 billion dollars, and that excludes the costs of the troop increase. In face of an economic crisis the costs of staying in Afghanistan in addition to the national security benefits (which, for now,  seem limited to the inability of Al Qaeda to launch attacks that particular country alone) have to be weighed against the financial benefits of moving out and the national security implications of such a decision. How much longer can the US pour money into a venture that, actually, decreases national security by taking appropriations away from more broad-range threats like biological weapons or anti-terrorism preparedness at home ? Money is finite and, in reality, increasing the debt and spending more when you are in a quagmire actually decreases your national security standing, and the terrorists know that all too well (ever thought why they attacked the World Trade Center and not the Empire State Building?). And all of this is even without taking into consideration the costs in manpower (i.e. casualties) and the morality of supporting a hardly legitimate government in Kabul.

All these arguments make sense in a world in which Obama’s decisions can somehow be stripped from reality – but they are not. That is why, even though the real benefits of pulling out are bigger than the costs of staying, the political reality of him not yet being a lame duck president, his willingness not to alienate Republicans and many Democrats, and the force of the commitment to the NATO allies there prevails. In other words, pulling out of Afghanistan at the present time, even though desirable, is not an option.

Obama should create a framework for eventually pulling out of Afghanistan by minimizing the risks associated with abandoning NATO allies and completely alienating conservatives and many moderates at home. The timeframe Obama announced at West Point is the best indicator that such a policy can be implemented. However, his speech created more questions than it answered. What are these conditions under which the US would start withdrawing by 2011 ? What will be that pressure on the Karzai government that would eventually lead to reforms ? In my opinion, the timeframe should be more flexible setting specific goals for the Kabul government. Training an army and police would take at least 1 year. Implementing a strategy for that training would take a month. Rather than setting an arbitrary deadline by which some goals should be attained, the US should pressure Kabul into implementing certain changes in the next month or two. Otherwise, Obama is literally dependent on Karzai’s goodwill and, indeed, it would be Karzai who would be dictating the rules, not the US president. The timeframe is good, because it would give Obama a good excuse to pull out if the Karzai government would fail to produce results, conveniently at a time just during the start of the 2012 election campaign season.

A common objection to it is that it would give Al Qaeda a hint to stay low until the US pullout from the region. This is based on a false assumption that somehow Al Qaeda only operates in Afghanistan, when in fact it has its cells in countries like Somalia and Indonesia. Maybe it does send that sign to the 100-or-so Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, but this does not pose a serious threat to the organization so spread anyway. This touches on a crucial point : the US, even if it would stay in Afghanistan for the next 10 years, would not destroy Al Qaeda. The only way to combat organizations like that is through international security community means, like Interpol. This lie that Al Qaeda can be at all defeated by just staying in Afghanistan is a convenient ploy of casting this as a conventional conflict by those, especially in the military, who have little sympathy for or understanding of  irregular concepts of warfare. As to the Taliban, they too can only be suppressed but not defeated. They hardly recognize if they are fighting against the British, the Soviets or Americans, and they cannot be eliminated because what gives them the will to fight is not an ideological war with the US, but more simply nationalism that will not die out in the next 10 or 100 years.

One sometimes wonders why are the US and NATO still there at all. Unfortunately, the reasons for staying in Afghanistan are becoming more and more, what rhetoricians I believe call, heuristic. They are about the mission itself, rather than about achieving anything. These include “showing resolve in the fight against terrorism” or “preventing a loss that would damage American prestige”. If politicians start using phrases like that, you know that the conflict at hand has become meaningless and the war itself purely political.

The 30,000 troop increase is at best an attempt to placate hawks at home as well as generals in the field, and at worst a mistake. Among the most ludicrous claims out there is that a troop increase would allow for an Iraqi-style surge. For that goal 30,000 troops is too little. Just as 300,000 is. US should not commit itself further to a conflict in which it does not dictate the rules. My opposition to the troop increase should not be misconstrued as absolute, but it is solid in the present circumstances. There is a much more overlooked problem with the troop increase, something that conditions much of the opposition to that increase. It is true that Obama already increased the troops in Afghanistan shortly after taking office, but the weight and prestige put in creating the West Point speech decidedly makes this Obama’s war. From this time on, he will not be able to blame his predecessor on any failings there as he has decided to refresh Bush’s ideas (Bush wanted an identical increase). Without sending these troops he might still have divorced himself from this war, but now, as he adopted it, it effectively became Obama’s war. This is a tough gamble to take.

Last, the importance of dealing with Pakistan cannot be overemphasized. Islamabad is the key to the American policy in the region. The US should do whatever it takes to cooperate with the regime. If the cooperation is anything but full, the entire US venture in the region can be abandoned.

In short, after making these faithful decisions, Obama should concentrate on three things: demanding more from Kabul (and indeed the US can do that – the very existence of the regime is conditioned under American support), cooperation with Islamabad (without which any venture is futile), and more broad-range non-Afghanistan measures with the help of NATO or even UN (which currently are seriously under-financed because of Afghanistan).

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One Response to “Afghanistan: Malia & Sasha’s New Adopted Sibling”

  1. politicaljar Says:

    1.Despite the importance and relevance to the public, especially in the middle of a crisis, financial arguements for pulling out are somewhat incoherent with America’s national interest. You know well, that the stabilization in Afghanistan is a key element of regional agenda there. Spending is enormous, maybe not well allocated so far, but definitely necessary to help make the region more secure.

    2. We should avoid any sort of ‘moral’ standards in assessing the current support for the Afghan government as of now(it’s too early), or any behavior in US foreign policy for that matter. Similarly, we could raise a question that will morally dispute US engagement with China. In case of China and Afghanistan such arguements are counterproductive. Yes, Karzai’s political legitimacy can be disputed, but it is too late for any criticism, because Karzai is already sworn in, and his election recognized – the Obama administration as of now cannot do anything but try to reach an accomodation with fait accompli, which is a corrupt, and weak Karzai government.

    3. I strongly disagree with your views on NATO’s presence. It is well known since Karl von Clausewitz and beyond, that war is a continuation, or an extension of policy by other means. Therefore, ALL wars are political, ergo NATO’s “war” as well. Political reasons are clear: through success in stabilizing Afghanistan retaining raison d’etre in a new global environment, if not at all preserving its very own existence. Thus, NATO’s political motivations are rather coherent with overall success in Afghanistan.

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