Monday, October 05, 2009

Obama Faces a 'Hobson's Choice' on Afghanistan: Build Up or Pull Back?

President Faces His Toughest Dilemma Yet That Has Echoes of What LBJ Faced Over the Vietnam War; No Matter What Decision He Reaches, Obama Is Likely Stuck in a 'Damned-If-You-Do, Damned-If-You-Don't' Position -- Alienating One Side or the Other in Debate Over the U.S. Role in Afghanistan

It's lonely at the top: There are times when being the president of the United States can be the toughest and loneliest job in the world. And at no time is that feeling greater than when a president is confronted with his most fateful decision in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces: To commit U.S. troops into armed combat, especially in a war that's unpopular with the American people. President Lyndon Johnson (left) learned that the ward way when he made his fateful decision in 1965 to escalate the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. Now President Obama (right) faces a similarly fateful decision on whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan or to pull back. Whichever way he decides could determine the fate of his presidency. (Photos: UPI Archives and the White House)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, October 5, 2009)



During the last several weeks, Americans have found themselves back in the middle of a fierce debate over our continuing military effort in Afghanistan. What was Bush's forgotten war had, until recently, seemed quite safely transformed in public opinion into Obama's "war of necessity."

Now, because of General Stanley McChrystal's request for significantly more troops, coming on the heels of his public declaration that the Taliban are essentially "winning," the ruling Democrats have suddenly been thrust back into "quagmire" mode.

Predictably, we are once again awash in feverish Baby Boomer analogies to Vietnam, despite the pronounced absence in Afghanistan of any great-power antagonism. Indeed, America enjoys the exact opposite there.

Nonetheless, defections from the "good war" are occurring across the ideological spectrum. On the right, Washington Post columnist George Will has declared it's "time to get out of Afghanistan," while on the left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warns that congressional support for more troops is fast dwindling.

Most tellingly, that avatar of the American middle, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, now confesses that he fears our "babysitting" job in Afghanistan has morphed into a full-fledged "adoption."

In sum, our nation's elite are finally grasping just how far into the future a counterinsurgency/nation-building effort in rugged, backward Afghanistan may extend -- i.e., way beyond the 2010 midterm elections.




WASHINGTON -- There is no immediate danger of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban, National Security Adviser James Jones said Sunday.

"I don't foresee the return of the Taliban," Jones, a retired Marine Corps general and former commandant, said on CNN's "State of the Union." "And I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in danger -- imminent danger -- of falling."

Jones' comments are in stark contrast to those of General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who submitted an assessment late last week in which he reportedly says he needs additional forces to successfully carry out the counterinsurgency strategy.

President Obama is overseeing a review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. McChrystal and other military leaders are pressing the president to act quickly to increase the present 68,000-troop level by up to 40,000 troops.

Otherwise, McChrystal reportedly warns, the mission could fail, bringing a return of power to the Taliban. The president has yet to respond to the general's request.



But what's especially odd about this debate is its stunningly self-centered tone: What are America's national interests? How long can America last? How much will America be forced to spend in blood and treasure? What will happen to America's standing if we withdraw? The whole conversation feels like a neurotic superpower talking to its therapist.

We continue to debate our involvement as though this is "America's war" alone, when it is nothing of the sort and never has been, even if its triggering tragedy -- the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- is.

Like every other U.S. military intervention going back to Operation Desert Shield in 1990, the United States is conducting a police action on behalf of an international community that remains deeply interested in the targeted nation's stability. That's why 50 nations other than the United States have been involved in Operation Enduring Freedom at one time or another.

And yet, despite this obvious widespread interest in the outcome, especially among Afghanistan's many regional neighbors, we conduct our conversation as if the only interests that matter are those of United States and, by ideological extension, its traditional Cold War allies in NATO (which has at times also found itself on the therapist's couch).


Even taking into account the still-charged memory of 9/11, the West's strategic arrogance here is a bit much. Imagine Russia, India, Iran and China all declaring themselves empowered to settle some raging insurgency in Central America, or Mexico's "drug war," on the basis of its global security implications. Now consider that Afghanistan, and that part of it that bleeds into Pakistan, is the proverbial "front yard" of these great powers.

And yet, what signs do we receive from these next-door neighbors amidst our internal debates on Afghanistan?

# Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, recently declared Moscow's interest in seeking a direct role in future alliance strategizing on Afghanistan. "We want to be inside," he stated. Does that suggest Russian boots on the ground? Not any time soon. But it means Russia wants to be more involved than simply serving as logistical through-point.

# India has increased its pledged developmental assistance to Afghanistan to $1.2 billion, leapfrogging to fifth place among advanced-economy donors -- behind only the U.S., United Kingdom, Japan and Canada. According to The Wall Street Journal, "The Indian government is also paying to bring scores of bureaucrats to India, as it cultivates a new generation of Afghan officialdom."

# Iran's latest response to the West's demands regarding its nuclear program sought to tie that dispute to a wider regional security dialogue, encompassing, among other things, instability in Afghanistan-Pakistan. As in Iraq, Tehran continues to offer help in rebuilding Afghanistan even as its munitions regularly show up there. As usual, Iran will be intimately involved, one way or another.

# Then there's China, whose $3 billion deal on an Afghan copper mine earlier this year constituted the greatest single foreign direct investment in that nation's entire history. Already building infrastructure throughout the country, often while being protected by U.S. military forces, China has recently stepped up its training of Afghan police along their common border. With Beijing's excellent record of training overseas civilian police, says the European Council on Foreign Relations, China "should be asked to train and provide mentors for the Afghan police," in addition to training their civilians by the thousands in the fields of medicine and engineering.


Given all that, why don't we hear any American politicians or experts arguing about how we need to spread ownership of this problem regionally, instead of further burning out our own forces and those of NATO? Because for them, that would be handing "victory" over to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the "axis of diesel" -- signaling, no doubt, the onset of a "post-American world."

And yet, who amongst us believes that any realistic outcome for Afghanistan-Pakistan could somehow not intimately involve these states, and will not ultimately constitute their "success" far more than ours?

My continuing fear with the Obama administration is that it remains nowhere near ready to bargain realistically with such states. Why? Because under the "soft on defense" Democrats, a "strong" America -- as opposed to a strong America -- must simultaneously stand up to Iran, boss India around, hedge on China's rise and counteract resurgent Russia. It must do everything, to everyone, while somehow still pulling a rabbit out of its hat in Afghanistan.

Despite all the nice talk about cooperating where Bush-Cheney once confronted, Team Obama still seems far too timid in its diplomacy. It hasn't made a single daring or imaginative call on a "war" it has declared its own.

With his most respected principal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, publicly stating that we've got maybe a year to show clear progress, it may already be too late for President Barack Obama to escape this historical trajectory.

And so long as Democrats continue the tragic Bush-Cheney habit of wedding themselves to internal political timetables -- remember the sudden bursts of official honesty after the '04 and '06 elections? -- it's hard to see how any interested great power would trust our strategically myopic leadership.

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(Thomas P.M. Barnett is senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC and a contributing editor/online columnist for Esquire magazine. This commentary first appeared on the World Politics Review Web site.)

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Volume IV, Number 75
Guest Commentary Copyright 2009, World Politics Review LLC. Re-posted by permission.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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