So, what’s the deal with Afghanistan?

Barack Obama has been President… about 68 days? And already, as he plans to draw down 100,000 troops in Iraq over the next 18 months, and send another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, there are already people describing the war in Afghanistan as his “Vietnam.” What is being neglected is the fact that he has inherited two horrific wars, both of which are unpopular, especially within the Democratic party. While these wars may very well suffer from a lack of public support, he is in the difficult position of having to recraft American policy so that he can safely exit both arenas, while shifting focus onto Al Qaeda… remember those guys? The ones who attacked us on 9/11?

Those who would compare President Obama and President Bush’s approach to the wars simply are not paying attention, or are hoping he fails. In Iraq, as mentioned, he is drawing down troops in preparation for an exit before 2011. Within Afghanistan, President Obama is already trying to build an international coalition so that it is not just the United States that bears the full burden. Due to the iron grip of the NeoCons in Bush’s first term, there was virtually no attempt to build a coalition beyond a few token troops from our closest allies. Also, President Bush generated so much animosity and disdain that few nations were willing to step forward and send troops to either Iraq or Afghanistan. President Obama has gone on a diplomacy offensive in order to round up support. He is very popular around the globe, a fact he hopes will gain him the support of world leaders and their troops. In addition to troop increases, President Obama is also going to send civilian experts to Afghanistan to help the fledgling nation develop its economy and political structures. They will also increase the training of Afghan security forces so they can bear responsibility for their own long-term safety.

While President Bush ignored the war in Afghanistan, assuming that the mission was accomplished, the Taliban slowly made a come-back and learned the lessons of guerrilla warfare that were being taught in Iraq. President Obama has promised to refocus our efforts into Afghanistan in order to keep the Taliban away from power, and to prevent them from recreating a safe haven for Al Qaeda. The central strategy will be one of divide and conquer. The Taliban is fractured, with two-thirds of Taliban forces more concerned with local issues, while the other third, led by former Afghan leader Mullah Omar, want to fully regain their control of power. The President hopes that by taking a political, rather than military, approach with the Taliban forces focused on local issues, he can pit the Taliban against itself and against Al Qaeda allies. This strategy also won glowing praise from Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

Another fact, which was ignored by President Bush, was that the Taliban have found a safe haven along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. This is where counter-insurgency operations will have to be conducted, and there is already evidence that President Obama is using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, known as Predator Drones, to strike at Taliban and Al Qaeda militants hiding along that porous Pakistan/Afghanistan border. The strikes, which have increased dramatically since August 2008, have sown distrust and division within the Al Qaeda ranks, an effect that they hope will be replicated within the Taliban. A major concern, however, is that there have been numerous drone attacks that have killed civilians. These attacks have been condemned by President Hamid Karzai, who has insisted that attacks on civilians must come to an end. The attacks have had the effect of adding to anti-America sentiment in some areas, which is not helpful in the long-run.

But it is not just the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda enjoy protection along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border: the Pakistani military also needs to do more to root out these terrorist elements, which requires counter-insurgency training. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, made a trip to those countries in early February in order to demonstrate the Obama administration’s desire to focus on that region’s woes. Appearing on the Charlie Rose show, Holbrooke spoke about the need for Pakistan’s military to evolve away from being India-centric and to focus on counter-insurgency training. He also indicated that he would like to see more Pakistani troops along the border. “There is no way,
Charlie, that the international effort in Afghanistan can succeed unless
Pakistan can get its western tribal areas under control,” Holbrooke said. The Pakistan government needs to rein in terrorist organizations within, or there can be disastrous consequences. As was seen in December, with the attacks in Mumbai, these terrorist elements want to spark a larger war between India and Pakistan so they can continue their operations along the western border of Pakistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda represent a threat to their own continuance as a nation, a threat they need to better understand. President Zardani’s wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by the Taliban, a prefect and personal example of the Taliban threat. Therefore, it becomes a necessity for the U.S. to train the Pakistani military and to provide support for the Pakistani government. This is a regional problem, which President Obama will work hard to resolve.

Though it is important to refocus on Afghanistan, President Obama needs to understand that the continued presence of U.S. troops in the middle-east is a factor in increasing animosity towards our nation. For instance, one of Osama bin Laden’s main grievances against the U.S., pre-9-11, was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. This sentiment was felt across the Arab region, and it is felt even more powerfully as the U.S. is engaged in two wars in the region. However, despite this reality, President Obama has inherited Bush’s mistakes, and now he has to make decisions that were forced upon him by his predecessor. His choices range from bad to worse. In the short-term, it is necessary to drive back the Taliban in militarily, but in the long-term it is necessary to provide economic support and to help rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure. The seeds of this strategy have been planted already, as the civilian diplomats en route to Afghanistan are going to focus more on local development and governance, as well as security training. The political solution to the war in Afghanistan is ultimately what will bring us “victory”… which, for many Americans, is defined as bringing our troops home safely.

For President Obama, this the top priority, in terms of foreign policy. After his first National Security Council meeting, Obama was “calm and cool,” while others (such as Rahm Emmanuel) were stunned. “The general feeling was expressed by one person who said at the end, ‘Holy shit.'” There are a multitude of problems, including reining in the production of opium, curbing government corruption, and forging unity among the differing regions and warlords, and creating a sustainable and responsible government. These are some tough challenges and President Obama seems eager to take the challenge. He must, however, keep in mind his history: the Soviet Union deployed over 100,000 troops into Afghanistan and they were ultimately defeated. If he wants to avoid a quagmire, then he needs to split the civilian populations from the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents through positive developments in their society. He also needs to make sure that, in the long run, there is an Afghan face on both their government and military. This is a dangerous time for Afghanistan. There can be virtually no mistakes.

AAAAnd on a completely different note, just for the sake of levity, some hilarious pictures I found.

I quite enjoy the first one…


Remember her? How could we forget?

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