Obama’s Afghan war – a race against time
By making the war in Afghanistan his own, declaring it a war of necessity and sending more troops, President Barack Obama has entered a race against time. The outcome is far from certain.
To win it, the new strategy being put into place has to show convincing results before public disenchantment with the war saps Obama’s credibility and throws question marks over his judgment. Already, according to public opinion polls in August, a majority of Americans say the war is not worth fighting. Almost two thirds think the United States will eventually withdraw without winning.
There are similar feelings in Britain, which fields the second-largest contingent of combat troops in Afghanistan after the United States. A poll published in London this week showed that 69 percent of those questioned thought British troops should not be fighting in Afghanistan.
In the United States, almost inevitably in a country that never forgot the trauma of the only war it ever lost, 36 years ago, pundits are conjuring up the ghost of Vietnam. A lengthy analysis in the New York Times wondered whether Obama was fated to be another Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who kept escalating the Vietnam war.
The war in Afghanistan is drawing into its ninth year and chances are it will still be going badly when Obama is gearing up for his campaign for re-election in 2012. According to a study by the RAND institute, a think tank working for the military, counter-insurgency campaigns won by the government have averaged 14 years.
“The insurgent wins if he does not lose,” according to the U.S. Army’s counter-insurgency manual, “while the counterinsurgent loses if he does not win. Insurgents are strengthened by the common perception that a few casualties or a few years will cause the United States to abandon (the effort).” A key to winning: “firm political will and extreme patience.”
Patience is not an American virtue. The first call for Obama to set a “flexible timetable” for the withdrawal of American troops came this month, from Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Not exactly a reflection of firm political will and extreme patience.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgents not only have been winning by not losing, they have actually been gaining ground. In the words of the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, the situation in Afghanistan “is serious and is deteriorating.”
What does that mean? According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Taliban have expanded their area of influence from 30 of Afghanistan’s 364 districts in 2003 to some 160 districts by the end of 2008. But, says Cordesman, a widely-respected authority on military affairs, “the military dimension is only part of the story.”
CORRUPTION AND INCOMPETENCE
The other part is a corrupt, incompetent government and an equally corrupt and inefficient system of disbursing international aid. In his war-of-necessity speech, Obama obliquely referred to that aspect of the Afghan war by saying it could not be won by military force alone. “We also need … development and good governance.”
Both have been in very short supply. “The Afghan government lost legitimacy over the past five years,” says Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Whether, and how quickly, it can regain it is open to doubt, no matter who emerges as the winner of the August 20 election in which President Hamid Karzai was running for a second five-year term. (Full results are due on September 3. Both Karzai’s camp and his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, have claimed victory on the basis of partial results.)
The extent of corruption and the lack of good governance are reflected by two international gauges – the Failed States Index compiled by the The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine and the annual Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog group. Afghanistan ranks 7th on the failed states list and 176th (out of 180) on the corruption scale.
This is not an environment that lends itself to swift solutions. There are powerful vested interests in maintaining what Cordesman calls a dishonest system of power-brokering and corruption. Jean MacKenzie, a Kabul-based reporter, said in a recent guest column for Reuters that foreign assistance coming into Afghanistan was one of the richest sources of funding for the Taliban.
“It is the open secret no one wants to talk about … Virtually every major project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents,” MacKenzie wrote. “International donors, primarily the United States, are to a large extent financing their own enemy.”
Until recently, most experts thought that the Taliban was financed largely from taxes the insurgents levied on the production of opium, the raw material for heroin. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said last year (when he was not in government service) that “breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential or all else will fail.”
He no longer thinks that the insurgency is mostly funded by the opium trade. Instead, he says that the volume of money flowing into the Taliban coffers from sympathizers in Gulf states and elsewhere exceeds that of the drug trade.
“Obama inherited a disaster,” according to Riedel, “a war which has been under-funded and under-resourced for six of the past seven years.” And what would happen if the Obama’s war of necessity went wrong and the United States pulled out of Afghanistan? In the Muslim world, it would be seen as “a triumph on a par with the withdrawal of Soviet forces” from Afghanistan after their disastrous nine-year war and occupation.
Not to mention the impact it would have on Obama’s political standing.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@reuters.com)