Sunday, December 21, 2008
Can Obama Win the Afghan War?
As Barack Obama prepares to enter the Oval office as the 44th president of the United States in January 2009, one of the greatest challenges he inherits from outgoing President George W. Bush is the growing strength of the Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan. The ferocity of the Taliban fighters has already stretched the Afghan war into its eighth year, making it the second longest war in the American history. With the US decision to send another 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, it seems more and more likely that the Obama presidency will be defined by the Afghan war in the same way that the LBJ presidency was defined by America's deepening involvement in the Vietnam war engulfing the entire Indochina region. In some ways, the Obama challenge is much more difficult because of the dire economic situation that America is facing today. Can Obama win the war he says America needs to win?
According to the Wall Street Journal, this year has been the deadliest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban for hosting al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Suicide attacks and roadside bombs have become more dangerous, and Taliban fighters have infiltrated wide swaths of countryside and now roam in provinces on Kabul's doorstep. Deep dissatisfaction with the Karzai government, increasing Afghan civilian casualties and money from expanding poppy cultivation and trade are helping the Taliban in their quest to oust foreign forces.
It is now believed that the Taleban control as much as 75% of the Afghan territory with their noose tightening around Kabul. The question being asked now is whether 60,000 US troops can defeat the Afghan Taliban resistance, a feat that 115,000 Soviet troops couldn't accomplish in the 1980s?
"Of all the lands of the earth, Afghanistan has been among the least hospitable to foreigners who come to rule, or to teach them how they should rule themselves", writes Patrick Buchanan in his opinion on Creators.com.
The conservative American columnist further adds,"America and NATO have never been nearer to strategic defeat". In this latest assessment, Buchanan joins Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, the UK's commander in Afghanistan's Helmand province in Afghanistan who declared in October that the Afghan war can not be won. "We're not going to win this war", he told London's Sunday Times in October.
"It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army." he added. Later, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will retain his job in the incoming Obama administration, basically agreed with the British brigadier's assessment without admitting that "the war can not be won". Instead, Gates said, "despite challenges, there was no reason to think success could not be achieved in the long run".
Before arriving in Kandahar recently, Gates spoke grimly of a "sustained commitment for some protracted period of time. How many years that is, and how many troops that is ... nobody knows."
While the US and NATO forces struggle in Afghanistan, their growing frustration is finding an outlet in frequent US strikes inside Pakistani territory further fueling Pakistan's anti-American public opinion. With the country's ongoing crises, and the growing US demands on Pakistan, the future of US-Pakistan relations and the chances of success in Afghanistan do not look particularly bright. The solution to this darkening mood in both nations is a serious and sincere effort by each to improve their bilateral relationship based on a recognition of mutual interests and genuine needs. The incoming Obama administration has an opportunity to change the US tone with Pakistan to make the friendship genuine and useful to both partners in the war on terror. Barack Obama's oft-repeated position that Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations can not be isolated from the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world offers a good starting point for discussion.
The sooner the Obama administration and the US allies accept the futility of a military solution in Afghanistan, the easier and less costly it will be in terms of loss of life for all parties involved. Rather than desperately widening the Afghan war into a dangerous regional conflict, a comprehensive political solution with a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan seems the only way to bring this long, deadly war to an end.
Polls show very strong support for removing all US military forces from the region. In a 2007 WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO) poll, conducted in conjunction with the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) Center at the University of Maryland, large majorities supported the goal of getting "the US to remove its bases and its military forces from all Islamic countries" in Morocco (72 percent), Egypt (92 percent), and Pakistan (71 percent). Winding down the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will go a long way toward restoring a positive US image in the world, particularly the Islamic countries.
Will Obama wind down these wars and bring the troops home? The people in the Islamic world do not appear to be particularly hopeful on this point. Pre-election polling found tepid enthusiasm for Obama. A July-August 2008 BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA poll of 22 countries around the world found the Middle East region to have the lowest level of enthusiasm for Obama. While results indicated more favored Obama than McCain in each of the four Middle Eastern countries polled, the total percentage expressing support for Obama was very low in the larger countries (26 percent in both Egypt and Turkey) and fell short of a majority in the smaller countries (39 percent in Lebanon and 46 percent in the United Arab Emirates [UAE]).