Obama policy in Afghanistan on a knife edge

Sat, Jul 18, 2009, 01:00

WORLD VIEW:ROADSIDE BOMBS are causing mounting casualties in Afghanistan among US and British troops. In May, 465 coalition troops were killed, and an even larger number of Afghan soldiers. This is creating another round of political soul-searching about the war and its purposes just as the Obama administration puts in another 17,000 troops, bringing the overall US force to 70,000 on a graduated basis, writes PAUL GILLESPIE.

Along with this goes a new US strategy to fight against the Taliban there and in neighbouring Pakistan, distinguishing them sharply as “accidental guerrillas” from al-Qaeda. The Pakistani army’s large-scale operation against Taliban control of the Swat valley over the last two months is part of the same strategy. The spectre of “Obama’s Vietnam” is being raised more loudly as the full picture of his commitment to the war emerges. It is in several ways a misleading analogy, but useful for giving perspective to the long-standing US involvement in the region, which was obscured by the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq.

The interconnectedness of recent events in Afghanistan and Pakistan has a deep history, going back to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As a result of that, US policymakers empowered the Pakistani army to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan by using a specially constructed guerrilla force based on fundamentalist Muslim groups. This is the origin of the 1990s Taliban – and of al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001.

That history was lost sight of during the 1990s, when US funding was abruptly cut off. But Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan continued unabated, giving its dominant military strategic depth against India in the region and facilitating the Taliban takeover of the state and the destruction of the country’s considerable pluralist if highly decentralised political culture, which had survived even the brutal Soviet occupation. In their recent book, Invisible History, Afghanistan’s Untold Story, Paul FitzGerald and Elizabeth Gould, two US journalists with a long involvement there, trace how it has re-emerged after being parked with a compliant Pakistani regime during the Iraq war.

As they write: “The Bush administration diverted the necessary resources and attention away from where al-Qaeda was, into Iraq where al-Qaeda wasn’t. The administration then continued for seven years to underfinance the Afghan war, perform a hurricane Katrina-like Afghan reconstruction charade while hiring Afghan warlords and Pakistani Gen Pervez Musharraf to do the job for it.”

Asked last year whether this complicated US entanglement with the region was worth it, the geopolitical theorist Zbigniew Brzezinski, who set it up in 1978-9 as Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, replied with a definite yes. The larger prize, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, was a direct consequence of its difficulties in Afghanistan, which gave Ronald Reagan the excuse to ratchet up military expenditure in the 1980s. Speaking at meetings throughout the US, FitzGerald and Gould report a bewilderment about why the extra troops are being sent there now. They believe the Obama administration is buying time to save face, redefine its commitment and reorganise its priorities. “Whether it realises it or not, Washington has placed itself in a fight for its life in Afghanistan, just the way the Soviets did. Both its political and its military credibility are on the line and neither can tolerate another failure.

“Obama’s 17,000 troopers will make little difference without a reorganisation of Washington’s priorities away from its unyielding support for a dysfunctional Pakistani military.”

That comparison with the Soviet regime in Afghanistan may be more apt than the analogy with Vietnam, but one should be careful to understand the differences as well. Another American journalist who has a long familiarity with the region, Peter Bergen, writing in the current Washington Monthly, offers a more hopeful perspective for Obama’s policy, believing “it will, in time, produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state.” He bases his case on an assessment of the differing scales of US involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan. He reckons the Taliban now is at most 20,000 – capable of inflicting lethal roadside casualties on coalition troops in classical guerrilla fashion, but only one-tenth the number of those who fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

“The mujahideen were the recipients of billions of dollars of American and Saudi aid, large-scale Pakistani training and sophisticated US military hardware such as highly effective anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, which ended the Soviets’ command of the air.” As for Vietnam, Bergen says “the similarities between the Taliban and the Vietcong end with their mutual hostility toward the US military.” The Taliban fighters are too few to hold even small Afghan towns, let alone mount a Tet-style offensive on Kabul, whereas “the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army at the height of the Vietnam War numbered more than half a million men who were equipped with artillery and tanks, and were well supplied by both the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. And the number of casualties is also far smaller.”

He also argues Afghan public opinion is qualitatively more favourable towards social change and economic development capable of being built on a reconfigured war effort there than was the case in Vietnam. That will flow from empowering its society, security forces and polity through a longer aid commitment. But even if that is done, there remains the much larger question of Pakistan’s military to contend with.