Know When to Fold 'Em: How Obama's Move in Afghanistan is a Strategic Blunder that Plays Right into the Hands of China

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run..."
-Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

When I voted for Barack Obama, I was fully aware of his intention to focus America's military efforts on Afghanistan rather than Iraq. Those who viewed Barack as the 'anti-war' candidate and are now wringing their hands at their beloved President and asking "How could you do this" should have paid more attention to his campaign speeches. His stance on Afghanistan hasn't changed one bit.

What has changed is the global playing field. Once upon a time, even just a few years ago, an escalation in Afghanistan could have been seen as at least somewhat strategically sound from a military perspective -- though I still would have viewed its merits as highly questionable. Now, with the US economy tanked, America's standing in the world softened a bit, and another rising superpower with its own Islamic "problem," there is absolutely no reason for this escalation.

It goes without saying that a troop escalation of this magnitude will empower and embolden the Taliban in Pakistan, in fact it already has. By pre-announcing the date of our withdrawal -- the daft equivalent in poker of betting all your chips while simultaneously showing your opponent your hand -- we have in effect told the enemy that if they can ride this escalation out for 18-months, they will have won. Such a move is not only strategically unsound, it telegraphs everything the world already knows about the current state of America -- it says: we can get involved, but not too deeply; we can take a risk, but not too much of a risk; Its worth lives, but it will cost us the election is it goes poorly; we are hurting for cash, so this really can't go on too long... To say that it empowers the enemy is an understatement: to a society of warlords whose way of life is armed conflict its totally laughable.

Just as al-Qaeda grew in rank and strength the minute we invaded Iraq, so too will the anti-American sentiment spread with this troop escalation, not necessarily within Afghanistan itself, but certainly in Pakistan, the nesting ground of both the Taliban and al Qaeda. As someone who opposed Iraq, Obama should have learned this fundamental lesson - don't needlessly turn the region into an even bigger recruiting ground for extremists. Soon, the Taliban will have 30,000 more targets -- and 30,000 new ways to paint the US as the bad guy once again.

I say 'once again' because it is no exaggeration to say that there has been a sea change in global attitude towards the US over the last year. Since the economic crash and the election of Obama, the US has lost quite a bit of its 'bad guy' status. Of course there are those who always have, and will always, plot against us. But there is also a real sympathy towards America now -- if you travel, you can hear it everywhere you go. The same Islamabad cab drivers who might have been shaking their fists at America two years ago have quite a different view today and will let you know it.

Just as people are quick to anger, they are also quick to forget. Extremists make use of hot sentiment to turn normal citizens into footsoldiers. The less reasons we give them to hate us, the less they will. The less targets we give them, the less people will get killed. The more we put our minds and our money towards constructive development, the more we will build.

Given the potential consequences -- and in the absence of any clearly articulated short or long term security threat -- there is absolutely no reason, to borrow another poker analogy, to go all in. To do so not only strengthens extremism, it plays right into the ongoing strategy of a country we should be far more concerned about -- China.

China's long-term America strategy has always been to benefit economically from us and wait patiently while we run ourselves ragged in a costly ongoing war and milk ourselves dry through rampant overspending.

The strategy has worked. China -- the owner of a huge percentage of our debt -- is undoubtedly on the rise, and has been emboldened by America's recent retreat in global standing. The PRC is now acting as a bully unleashed, making brash claims of territorial sovereignty in India, deepening their investments and arms deals into Africa's most brutal regimes, buying out small governments (Nepal, Malawi) to build allies; and trying to position censored communication and cold war level domestic surveillance as a norm to western companies... in short, they are acting like the guy at the table with all the chips and no one to stop them from winning the pot.

But China, as a country with a massive restive Muslim population that has already erupted into violence once this year, as Pakistan's neighbor, as a country that is pumping money into whatever corrupt Central and South Asian government they feel provides them the most strategic advantage, is clearly next on the list to inherit the ire of fundamentalist Islam, and this concerns them terribly.This has already played out this year, when al-Qaeda issued threats over the Chinese repression of Muslims in East Turkestan. As superpowers rise and fall, the extremists battleground will shift towards China. This is inevitable history.

As much as they may make grumblings about American interventionism, Beijing would like nothing more than for America to continue to deplete itself militarily and financially over an enemy that they know will soon be theirs. In the process, they'll be happy to buy up more of that debt that we will incur fighting what is quickly becoming their war. And they'll be happy to buy access after the fact to the resource pools that we free up with the lives of American soldiers. Why play into this? By upping our costs in Afghanistan and lowering our standard in the Muslim world yet again, we are empowering Beijing financially and militarily.

We need to change the long term strategy.

Were I America, sitting at the poker table with almost no chips, trying to play against someone with twice the stack I have over a pot that I know I can't -- and probably don't even want to -- win, I would do the logical thing.

In the words of Kenny Rogers, you've got to know when to fold 'em.

Fold your cards, and pass the risk on to the next guy at the table. We all know who the "next guy" is... China.

America is still trying to act like the superpower in the room. Yet we have issues at home that need drastic attention, and only then will we start to rebuild that superpower status. What would be the disadvantage of using all of our resources to shore up our own economy, through massive green jobs investment and infrastructure overhaul, while leaving the overspending and the Islamic problem to the country that wants to play superpower? Why don't we turn the tables on Beijing for a change? Why don't WE ride it out long term, and let THEM deplete themselves. Let them get into debt. Let them be the bad guys... because -- little secret -- they already are.

Any immediate short term strategic losses in the Central Asian region we would incur by keeping the focus at home will be far outweighed by the long term strengthening of America domestically and the long term weakening of China internationally as it tries to make sense of its mess of a backyard. How many Pakistani's will stand for China's intervention into their government policies? How many more riots in Urumqi or anti-China protests in Africa until China's Islamic issue becomes a serious game-changer? I say, its time for us to walk away, right now, during that tiny window where they don't hate us quite as much.

President Obama, to summarize, this move of yours does not strike me as a gamble. It strikes me as a game of poker in which you've already showed your hand, you don't have any chips, your wife and kids are sitting behind you saying: "Daddy, we have to go," there's a guy across the table with twice the stack and the pot isn't a pot at all - its a damn powder keg. Not winnable. Ill-advisable. Poor strategy.

Fold. And walk away.