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

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 (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]).


Anonymous said...

US: They are out to prove that history repeats itself!

Ray Lightning said...

USA cannot afford to leave a political vacuum in Afghanistan. It made the mistake earlier. And USA cannot trust Pakistan to steward the job of governing Afghanistan through propped up artificial regimes (Taliban).

This means it has to be Afghan nationalism that should fill the void. As observed by Mr Kaplan, it is the tribes that have the answer.

Riaz Haq said...

Following comment received by email:

I do not agree with you. May be there is no military solution to the Taliban problem, but there is no solution otherwise too, short of Taliban having a country of their own and they would like to rule Afghanistan or the whole or part of Pakistan like Khomeni did in Iran. The major problem are the Taliban sympathizers in Pakistan. Pakistan does not behave like a country. There is a conflict between governance and religion. In any country, Taliban will be treated as traitors and punished according to the laws of the country. Their schools will be closed and banned and they will not be allowed to have an organization imposing different laws than those of the country of their domicile. May be, the combined forces of the US and Pakistan cannot win this war.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, USA can win this war within 6 months if and only if they get an HONEST SUPPORT from PAKISTAN.

But the problem is the sympathy factor for Taliban in Pakistan and i dont think that USA will be able to get an honest support from Pakistan.

Furthermore, On Afghan Territory, it is not easy to invade and win a war as Taliban always do Gorilla war and for that its not easy for any ARMY to invade. The other reality is that US is the Super Power and they arnt used to fight on GROUND. They can use technology to carpet bomb and things like that. But with that WAR cannot be won. You have to fight on GROUND as well.

So conclusion is, US should stop the invasion as they will never be able to win the war in Afghanistan. Doing that, hatred for the USA may get suppresed in the Muslim countries to some extent.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a finding of the latest survey conducted by University of Maryland and US perception in the Islamic world:

The view that "the US purposely tries to humiliate the Islamic world" is endorsed by majorities in three Islamic countries--Iran (64%), Egypt (56%), and Pakistan (52%)--and in Mexico (55%), as well as by large numbers of Palestinians (49%), Turks (43%) and Jordanians (39%).

For more, visit:

Anonymous said...

It looks like he determined to give it a shot. Soon the number of forces in afghan will be doubled.

Unknown said...

I am skeptical of Bloomberg report about 72% control since it writes inside that "Taliban fighters have a “permanent presence” in almost three quarters of Afghanistan and are tightening a noose around the capital, Kabul, according to a Paris-based research organization. "

It is totally different to have 72% "permanent presence" vis-a-vis 72% control. Also, this is an achievement compared to 100% Taliban control in 2001.

The Afghanistan war is a never ending battle. The only way out is to create a critical anti-Taliban population within Afghanistan who'd defend themselves with some dependence on external help.

The opinions of the countries you referred, consider 9/11 to be an inside job. So, the rest are obvious to them.

David Salmon said...

Hell, yes, we can win the war in Afghanistan. Note I say "we" and not "Obama," as success requires joint effort.

How? More troops, and more again after that as the US forces in Iraq are reduced. A brigade resident in each province bordering Pakistan to clear and hold. Build an Afghan army large enough to keep the peace, which means strong enough to take on the Taliban, the warlords, and the drug lords. Make allies of those who wish to live in peace; promise to leave as soon as terrorism ends; seek endorsement from the tribes and clans, as in Iraq. Initiate reforms and economic development projects. Leave a stable government behind. All of this worked in Iraq, and there is no reason a similar policy cannot work in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

To be sure, we begin with major disadvantages we need not have incurred had Bush not shifted his attention to Iraq.

But the terrorists are their own worst enemies. Their activities eventually appall even their friends.

How can we not win?

David Salmon

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a piece by a former NY Times correspondent Chris Hedges published by on Dec 28, 2009:

Syed Fahad Hashmi can tell you about the dark heart of America. He knows that our First Amendment rights have become a joke, that habeas corpus no longer exists and that we torture, not only in black sites such as those at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or at Guantánamo Bay, but also at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Lower Manhattan. Hashmi is a U.S. citizen of Muslim descent imprisoned on two counts of providing and conspiring to provide material support and two counts of making and conspiring to make a contribution of goods or services to al-Qaida. As his case prepares for trial, his plight illustrates that the gravest threat we face is not from Islamic extremists, but the codification of draconian procedures that deny Americans basic civil liberties and due process. Hashmi would be a better person to tell you this, but he is not allowed to speak.

This corruption of our legal system, if history is any guide, will not be reserved by the state for suspected terrorists, or even Muslim Americans. In the coming turmoil and economic collapse, it will be used to silence all who are branded as disruptive or subversive. Hashmi endures what many others, who are not Muslim, will endure later. Radical activists in the environmental, globalization, anti-nuclear, sustainable agriculture and anarchist movements—who are already being placed by the state in special detention facilities with Muslims charged with terrorism—have discovered that his fate is their fate. Courageous groups have organized protests, including vigils outside the Manhattan detention facility. They can be found at or On Martin Luther King Day, this Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. EST, protesters will hold a large vigil in front of the MCC on 150 Park Row in Lower Manhattan to call for a return of our constitutional rights. Join them if you can.

The case against Hashmi, like most of the terrorist cases launched by the Bush administration, is appallingly weak and built on flimsy circumstantial evidence. This may be the reason the state has set up parallel legal and penal codes to railroad those it charges with links to terrorism. If it were a matter of evidence, activists like Hashmi, who is accused of facilitating the delivery of socks to al-Qaida, would probably never be brought to trial.

Hashmi, who if convicted could face up to 70 years in prison, has been held in solitary confinement for more than 2½ years. Special administrative measures, known as SAMs, have been imposed by the attorney general to prevent or severely restrict communication with other prisoners, attorneys, family, the media and people outside the jail. He also is denied access to the news and other reading material. Hashmi is not allowed to attend group prayer. He is subject to 24-hour electronic monitoring and 23-hour lockdown. He must shower and go to the bathroom on camera. He can write one letter a week to a single member of his family, but he cannot use more than three pieces of paper. He has no access to fresh air and must take his one hour of daily recreation in a cage. His “proclivity for violence” is cited as the reason for these measures although he has never been charged or convicted with committing an act of violence.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Bloomberg Op Ed titled "No More Bullying Pakistan" written by former State Dept official Vali Nasr:

It took eight months, but the U.S. has finally apologized for killing 24 Pakistani soldiers in a firefight on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

With that, the U.S. military is again able to use routes through Pakistan to supply its forces in Afghanistan without paying exorbitant fees. Plus the threat that Pakistan will bar U.S. drone strikes is for now moot.
However, the main implication of the apology, a triumph of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over both the White House and the Pentagon, is that it ends the experiment of the U.S. trying to bully Pakistan into submission.

The clash in November between U.S. and Pakistani forces was a mess, with miscommunication on both sides but fatalities on only one. Pakistan, still seething over the U.S. breach of its sovereignty in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, closed U.S. military supply routes to Afghanistan when the U.S. initially refused to apologize. The U.S., in turn, froze $700 million in military assistance and shut down all engagement on economic and development issues. In a further deterioration of ties, the Pakistani Parliament voted to ban all U.S. drone attacks from or on Pakistani territory.
No Sympathy

The Pakistanis held firm in their insistence on an apology. Officials at the Pentagon thought the case didn’t merit one. Many had no sympathy for the Pakistanis, whom they regarded as double-dealers for stoking the insurgency in Afghanistan and providing haven to the notorious extremists of the Haqqani Network. The White House feared that an apology would invite Republican criticism. Throughout the crisis, Clinton and her senior staff argued that the U.S. should apologize. She supported re-engaging with Pakistan to protect a critical relationship while also holding Pakistan accountable for fighting the Taliban and other extremists, a point she has raised in each of her conversations with Pakistani leaders.

Clinton’s recommendations were contrary to the policy the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency put in place in early 2011. Relations had soured when the Pakistanis held CIA operative Raymond Davis after he shot two Pakistanis. Frustrated with Pakistan’s foot-dragging on counterterrorism, the two agencies successfully lobbied for a strategy to reduce high-level contacts with Pakistan, shame Pakistan in the news media, and threaten more military and intelligence operations on Pakistani soil like the bin Laden assassination. It was a policy of direct confrontation on all fronts, aimed at bending Pakistan’s will.

It failed. Pakistan stood its ground. Far from changing course, Pakistan reduced cooperation with the U.S. and began to apply its own pressure by threatening to end the drone program, one of the Obama administration’s proudest achievements.
The conclusion: Open conflict with Pakistan was not an option. It was time to roll back the pressure.

The apology is just a first step in repairing ties deeply bruised by the past year’s confrontations. The U.S. should adopt a long-term strategy that would balance U.S. security requirements with Pakistan’s development needs. Managing relations with Pakistan requires a deft policy -- neither the blind coddling of the George W. Bush era nor the blunt pressure of the past year, but a careful balance between pressure and positive engagement. This was Clinton’s strategy from 2009 to 2011, when U.S. security demands were paired with a strategic dialogue that Pakistan coveted. That is still the best strategy for dealing with this prickly ally.