Richter Scale

Why Afghanistan Is Lost

Will 30,000 additional U.S. troops help President Obama turn the tide in Afghanistan?

Takeaways


  • Washington just has to learn to tackle issues on the world clock — because it can no longer afford to follow its own clock, as was the case in the past.
  • Obama's instincts about what needs doing in Afghanistan would be right on the money — if we lived in the year 2002 or 2003.
  • After the removal of the Taliban in 2001, there was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get things right in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban cancer is likely to be chronic — and the only real question is whether it is terminal (and, in that case, just how lethal it would be).

Perhaps the biggest cultural change that is fathomed only very slowly among Washington's policy elites is that the "old world" in which they live is no more.

What that means specifically is the demise of the longstanding belief that the global and regional agendas move forward on Washington's timetable. Today, the world very much moves on its own clock — not Washington's.

Nowhere is the pain of that reality more acutely felt than in Afghanistan. After the removal of the Taliban in 2001, there was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get things right in a territory that for many centuries has been known as either the originator or the locus of military aggression.

However, instead of focusing its mission on Afghanistan and taking the opportunity to deal with neighboring Pakistan — and, in turn, improving its own tumultuous relations with India — the Bush Administration suffered from outright mission creep and utter delusion when instead it changed its focus to Iraq.

To this day, George Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, still struggles with accepting the lesson that an opportunity missed can sadly mean an opportunity lost.

To succeed in the critical and extremely worthy Afghanistan-turnaround mission would have required relentless focus. By turning Afghanistan into a sideshow to the war in Iraq, the execution of that vital mission could not succeed.

In addition to military action, where necessary, that would have required an early and unrelenting focus on building Afghan institutions, concentrating on governance and pursuing related strategies to establish a dependable civic backbone to the country.

After all, this was one rare moment in history when Afghanistan, rightfully termed the "burial ground of empires," was really in flux — and when hearts and minds could indeed have been won.

What happened instead is that, in setting up Hamid Karzai, the U.S. government banked on an Afghan leader who seems to be even less effective than Pakistan's Musharraf ever was — even though Karzai is certainly equipped with a trustworthy face that could have been provided by central casting for a happy-ending movie on Afghanistan.

Only it won't be so. Whatever maneuvers Vice President Joe Biden, Afghanistan/Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke, General McChrystal and others will try to engage in, the reality on the ground is that the Taliban, like a cancer, has been allowed to re-infect Afghanistan, including even the country's capital, Kabul.

That cancer is likely to be chronic — and the only real question is whether it is terminal (and, in that case, just how lethal it would be).

Despite some cooperation from Russia, the supply lines for the troops deployed in the field are brittle — never mind the further strain that adding troops would bring. In all likelihood, plenty of shady characters are lining up to obtain rent-seeking payments in order to acquiesce to U.S. requests.

The character of the region, however, is such that even while they will be glad to take the money, they can also be relied upon to play a double-con game.

Under these circumstances, it becomes an exercise in finding proper arrangements with the Taliban in order to seek to stabilize Afghan society.

In that particular mission, Dick Holbrooke could succeed rather splendidly. There is likely no other person in the entire Western world who has more talent to deal with unsavory characters.

The urgent issue before President Obama, though, is to manage expectations right. Hence, he has to abandon his overpromising on Afghanistan — if for no other reason that it's not 2003 anymore.

However, it appears he is doing precisely the opposite. Recently, he has essentially channeled George W. Bush, ordering a surge of 30,000 more U.S. troops to the country and proclaiming that Afghanistan "is not a war of choice," but rather "a war of necessity."

However, as U.S. troop deaths continue to mount — and as ever-larger numbers of soldiers are committed to the country — it appears the U.S. public's patience with the war is wearing thin.

An August 2009 poll found that 51% of Americans believe the war is no longer worth fighting — an increase of six percentage points from the previous month. In addition, only about a quarter of Americans think more U.S. troops should be sent to the country.

Rather than seeking, ex post facto, to save Afghanistan, Washington's collective efforts should be focused on avoiding the next issue on the global agenda on which Washington has punted for way too long already — Israel as a linchpin for the Middle East.

True, the inclination of U.S. policymakers will likely be to blame other nations for not following Washington's lead on renewed efforts in Afghanistan — and hence blame them for failure.

To preempt this predictable — and fruitless — scenario, the Western allies, as true allies do, should exert open pressure on Washington to come to terms with a workable and active policy on the Israel/Palestine issue.

While there is never a good time to tackle the Mideast peace issue, waiting has only made things worse. Washington just has to learn to tackle issues on the world clock — because it can no longer afford to follow its own clock, as was the case in the past.

President Obama, who is understandably so keen on reflecting — and even refracting — himself in the thrust of illustrious predecessors in the Oval Office, ought to take Harry Truman's bottom line: "The buck stops here."

Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from a version that was originally published on The Globalist on August 21, 2009.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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