Some Straight Talk on Afghanistan

"I was really depressed when I learned he [Obama] was going to say it's all about al Qaeda," Marvin Weinbaum said. Weinbaum is a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute and an Afghanistan expert who visited the White House during the months President Obama was crafting his new AfPak policy. Now he is working with the Afghan Familiarization Program to help prepare the civilians who are going in country, the "expeditionary forces" who will implement a significant part of the president's new policy. On Friday he spoke to a group of journalists at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland. (Watch the speech and the Q & A here.)

"But for political expediency reasons -- and I understand, that's what grabs the American people," Weinbaum continued, going on to explain why al Qaeda is not the reason we are still in Afghanistan. Although I think Marvin Weinbaum is wrong on the subject of what grabs us Americans (I do not believe that the threat of al Qaeda is any longer one of those attention-grabbers), Weinbaum does know Afghanistan. "I'm one of the few people left who took any interest in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s," Weinbaum said. His discourse at the Knight Center is telling in many ways. Since the session is an hour-and-a-half long, I annotate the highlights below.

55:37 This is not an 18-month commitment. "I was in the White House last week. I'll give you first-hand what their thinking is -- it's an indefinite commitment. . . . At 18 months we're going to be evaluating whether our strategy is working. . . . We're not saying forever.... We might go from 100,000 to 98,000 [troops] if we are succeeding."

01:06:48 We are going around Karzai. "We know we don't have much going with Hamid Karzai and the central government. You've got to go around it. Hence the bottom-up approach."

01:09:28 Announcing an exit date was a big mistake. "He [Obama] said that [the exit date] because he had to for domestic consumption." In answer to a question about Afghans and Pakistanis planning around our announced strategy and therefore hedging their bets, Weinbaum concurred. "Exactly. I asked the same question at the White House. This is the problem. . . . You've made it all al Qaeda. . . . Media sources in the region [AfPak] played up not the speech [Obama gave] but the date. . . . An unintended consequence but a serious one."

01:18:20 "We had better realize what we are facing." "When it appears we are getting out, there will be a rush to the exit. What will be the consequence? Very quickly, a return to fighting. . . . Iranians and Russians and their clients, Indians and Saudis, all jump in. . . . Pakistan picks up their Pashtun card. . . . everyone trying to salvage what they can for their own interests . . . Afghanistan becomes a killing field. . . Taliban come back in to settle scores. . . . There is a refugee crisis and a humanitarian crisis tracked back to the international command [now in Afghanistan]. . . . The Taliban, these are not nationalists [as they were before 2001]. Now they all share the idea of an Islamic state in their image. It is the caliphate for this region."

Success there, by the way, Weinbaum (see 43:43) gives only a 50-50 chance.