Obama’s good war goes bad

By Bernd Debusmann
November 5, 2009

Bernd DebusmannIn the protracted Washington debate over the war in Afghanistan, the most concise analysis so far has come from America’s top soldier: “If we don’t get a level of legitimacy and governance (there), then all the troops in the world aren’t going to make any difference.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking two days after Hamid Karzai was declared the winner, by default, in August elections so massively rigged that a U.N.-backed electoral complaints committee threw out about a million Karzai votes. That forced a run-off from which his challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah withdrew, saying the second round would be just as fraudulent as the first.

So much for an exercise in democracy President Barack Obama had used as his rationale for escalating the war a few months after he took office. “I did order 21,000 additional troops there to make sure that we could secure the election, because I thought that was important.”

It was. It showed that the United States and its NATO allies are fighting on the side of a corrupt and discredited government in a war, now in its ninth year, for which, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, there can be no purely military solution.

An angry assessment of the Afghan leader last year by Thomas Schweich, a former top anti-narcotics official in Afghanistan, has proved prophetic. Karzai, he said, had been playing the Americans like a fiddle ever since he came to power. “The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends would get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term.”

U.S. officials, including Admiral Mullen, are now calling on Karzai to purge Afghanistan of corrupt officials by arresting and prosecuting them. This is an unlikely prospect. In his victory speech, Karzai said he would work to wipe off “the stain of corruption” but said that could not be done simply by removing corrupt officials.

The implicit notice that there would be no major house-cleaning followed a telephone call Obama made to Karzai to say it was time for “a new chapter based on improved governance (and) a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption…” If previous promises from Karzai are any guide, the new chapter will remain unwritten.


Obama is close to making a decision on a request by General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan for as many as 40,000 additional troops. If the president followed the logic of Admiral Mullen’s analysis, he would send none. But he will, because he is boxed in by his own portrayal of Afghanistan as the “good war” (as opposed to the war in Iraq) and his definition of why the U.S. must be in Afghanistan.

“This is not a war of choice,” he said in a speech in August. “This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

One of the most passionate arguments against this reasoning has come from Matthew Hoh, the first State Department official to resign in protest over the war. Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain, said in his letter of resignation that if the U.S. strategy really was to prevent al-Qaeda from regrouping in Afghanistan, then America should also invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – all countries with an al-Qaeda presence.

“Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. To…follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”

Instead, he wrote, the U.S. was following the example of the Soviet Union, a previous and unsuccessful occupier, by bolstering a failing state.


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JP’s, these are larger than life numbers, almost as large as the real close-out of World War Two, carpet bombing of slaughterhouses’ in fives in Dresden, Germany. You sound like a war veteran, so you should therefore know that crash-training = cannon fodder and body bags.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

more US/UK soldiers have died in iraq and afghanistan that civilians who died on 9/11.

invading other countries has never produced a good outcome for anyone. bring the troops home as it’s a waste of time, lives and money…

the problem of east/west relations is a bit like palestine-israel… occupying their country isn’t going to win hearts and minds…

Posted by mark | Report as abusive

Obama’s whole approach to war, per se, is going bad. While the US should set an example by dismantling nuclear warheads, he goes and tells the whole world over the weekend that the US will retain the ‘stick’, instead of dangling a carrot. That’s very humble pie and Warm War behavior. If one bomb gets dropped, everybody will drop theirs. If nobody drops its bomb, nobody will want to drop their bomb. Why not simply dismantle as nobody really wants to drop a bomb and turn to using GM food as WMD ? Mark, many more people than 3000 have died in NATO attacks, the only difference, it was not in one building complex in one go, nor was a civilian aircraft used.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

Probably he has information that is too confidential for disclosure.
There is always the “what if” situation. What if withdrawal from Afghanistan leads to the next 9/11? What if sending more troops increase regional instability?

Obama will never win the war in Afghanistan unless he ousts the Kazai’s government. I have a best strategic plan for the war as I have studied the Vietnam war. There are many Kazai’s officials are making huge $$$ by selling information to their enemies. The US failed in Vietnam, because many seniors of US-Backed Sai Gon government worked for the Communist North. Secret intelligence that is crucial to defeat the enemy had been leaked to the North. The US should have to learn more from Vietnam, the future failure of the Afghan war will be the same. The US built government officials who were very poor in the past have become blind by the flow of US$ and aids. Kazai and his supporters benefited from this. What can we do? The best solution to it is to get rid of Kazai. If not give him a timetable of 5 years to build a trusted government for its people or he will be killed by his enemy. Additionally, the US should conduct a survey to understand the wish of Afghan people as without the support of the local people, the failure is inevitable. The communist won the war in many countries because they spread the ideology of “people are the owner of the country” not the rich. Bring the people to the table, the US will win.

Posted by Tri Nguyen | Report as abusive

The war in Afghanistan has stopped being a practical matter of securing American freedom (not that it ever was). It has turned into a political quagmire. No matter what the president does he will be criticized. And if that’s going to be the case anyway, then better to take the criticism while sparing the blood of our protectors.

His enemies will attack his actions and point out all of the reasons getting out is a bad idea. But at least there will be no more American blood being spilled just
because old men don’t know how to get along.

First America needs to take the log out of its own eye before it can see clearly enough to remove the specks from the eyes of other nations.