Green Room

Switching Policies in Afghanistan

posted at 1:29 pm on September 20, 2009 by

The evidence continues to gather that President Obama’s strategic objective in Afghanistan is not a stable, self-governing Afghanistan, able to withstand subversion by Islamist insurgency, but a narrow pursuit of Al Qaeda (and, by Obama’s official association through policy speeches, the Taliban as well).

I wrote about the “manhunt” quality of Obama’s policy in this recent post.  Obama has confirmed the thrust of his policy again in comments aired on Meet the Press this morning.  Here are his words on the question of sending more troops to Afghanistan:

“I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way – you know, sending a message that America is here for the duration.”

His comments on This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

“We’re going to test whatever resources we have against our strategy, which is, if by sending young men and women into harm’s way, we are defeating al Qaeda-and that can be shown to a skeptical audience, namely me, somebody who is always asking hard questions about deploying troops- then we will do what’s required to keep the American people safe.”

(H/T:  Hot Air, Politico)

Obama could not be making it clearer that his priority is pursuing Al Qaeda directly – in the simplest and most direct sense of tracking down Al Qaeda operatives – and that his priority is not staying with the new democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq and helping them to establish consensual control over their territory.  Here, again, are his words from the August speech to the VFW chapter in Phoenix:

“…we’re able to refocus on the war against al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  That’s why I announced a new, comprehensive strategy in March  -  a strategy that recognizes that al Qaeda and its allies had moved their base from the remote, tribal areas  -  to the remote, tribal areas of Pakistan…  And our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies.”

And on Iraq:

“Now, as Iraqis take control of their destiny, they will be tested and targeted.  Those who seek to sow sectarian division will attempt more senseless bombings and more killing of innocents.  This we know.

“But as we move forward, the Iraqi people must know that the United States will keep its commitments.  And the American people must know that we will move forward with our strategy.  We will begin removing our combat brigades from Iraq later this year.  We will remove all our combat brigades by the end of next August.  And we will remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.  And for America, the Iraq war will end.”

Iraqis could certainly be pardoned for interpreting these words as “Obama to Baghdad:  You’re on your own.”  The acknowledgment that Iraq will be tested with more senseless bombings and killing of innocents is weirdly detached and dismissive, and is followed by the money quote:  “We will begin removing our combat brigades from Iraq later this year…And for America, the Iraq war will end.”

The conclusion is inescapable that that commitment will be honored, regardless of how Iraq is being tested by senseless bombings and killings at any time henceforth.

In the American public debate over Afghanistan, the theme will be “need more troops” versus “don’t need more troops.”  But that was an inadequate take on the pre-surge problem in Iraq, and it’s an inadequate take now on the real issues with the Afghanistan campaign.  The essential question in Afghanistan is what our objective is.  Are we merely there, somewhat as we are in Pakistan, to hunt terrorists?  Or are we there to continue the War on Terror as outlined in the Bush strategy? – with the key goal of immunizing a consensual, self-governing Afghanistan against recapture by the Taliban?

If, by Obama’s lights, we are only there to hunt terrorists, retreating to that posture is likely to entail pain and political damage.  We need not pacify and protect Afghan villages, as General McChrystal proposes, to hunt terrorists.  We need not identify and interdict the links between terrorists and state sponsors – namely, in the case of Afghanistan, Iran.  We need not make the condition of Pakistanis invaded by the Taliban in the Swat Valley our concern.  Moreover, if we relinquish concern about what is going on on the ground, in the political and economic life of the people, and concentrate narrowly on a terrorist body count, we pave the way ourselves for Iran, Russia, and factions in Pakistan to stake out their own territory in Afghanistan by “helping” us.

There is a real prospect of turning the Afghan intervention into a cynical geopolitical free-for-all among the Asian nations, if the US backs off on our original commitment to an independent, integrated, self-governing Afghanistan.  Once that commitment is temporized on, it has no hope of merely “happening” on its own.  And the future of Afghanistan becomes a bargaining chip that is likely to divide us from our European NATO allies, particularly France and Germany.  Why should they be caught in de facto geopolitical realignments occasioned by our change of policy and strategy in Central Asia?  They will want to negotiate any such realignments for themselves; and they may very well choose alignments different from the ones we would propose.

Meanwhile, headhunting terrorists will not succeed in suppressing them or their craft.  If we retreat from our political commitment to the nations of Afghanistan and Iraq, what we will do is increase the vulnerability of our own terrorist-hunting forces to asymmetric attack – and promote by our own policy the ideological perception that what we are committed to is not a future of political freedom and consensual government, but a cycle of blood and death.

Update:  C.K. MacLeod comments (near-simultaneously) on a related aspect of this topic.  Highly recommend reading his post in conjunction with this one.

J.E. Dyer blogs at The Optimistic Conservative  and “contentions“.

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Iraqis could certainly be pardoned for interpreting these words as “Obama to Baghdad: You’re on your own.”

But Obama doesn’t care about Iraq. It was the “wrong war.” Afghanistan is turning out to the “wrong war, too” (“wrong war 2″?). No war is the right war when you believe that the U.S. can make friends with anyone, including Ahmedinajad, the Castros, Chavez, et. al. All we need is love. And more criminal investigations to ferret out the bad guys. Welcome to Sept. 10.

Howard Portnoy on September 21, 2009 at 10:12 AM

Yeah, HP, I fear the Iraqis got the message back during the campaign sometime. They don’t have a lot of choice other than to slog ahead and do the best they can. But we should expect Baghdad to become a fruitful courtin’ ground for Moscow not too far in the future. Iraq will want a patron that offers her some kind of guarantees about territorial integrity and Iranian proxy infiltration.

J.E. Dyer on September 21, 2009 at 12:01 PM