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Afghanistan: Obama's Fantasy Island

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Obama will do the predictable next week and sign on to plans for an expanded American commitment in Afghanistan. It will be a somewhat modified version of the McChrystal strategy. The White House will dexterously perform its patented sleight of hand to cast the decision as the only reasonable course between the advocates of dramatic escalation and the cut-and-run crowd.

In truth, he could not do otherwise - for three reasons. One, he already has pronounced AFPAK "the necessary war." Two, he climbed out on the political limb during the campaign in boosting the Afghan enterprise so as to protect himself against Republican charges of being a spineless dove on national security, however misguided the premise. Three, Obama set the bureaucratic and military gears in motion back in March at the time of Super Afghan Review I. Hence, he is locked in through his own poor judgments on all three fronts: intellectual, political and military.

The month long Super Afghan Review II has had only one possible termination point. Now it is just a matter of stating publicly what was predetermined. The country's political class, loosely defined, is collectively as culpable for this feckless willingness to perform what is a fool's errand. For we haven't pressed to know why America is there, what reasonable expectations are, or the enormous risks of the venture. The administration has been very happy not having to answer those never posed questions. For it is incapable of a coherent response. Richard Holbrooke was queried at the Center for American Progress back in August how specifically he would define success. His response:

The specific goal ... is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we'll know it when we see it.

The unwitting reference is to a comment by Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward in an opinion on a landmark pornography case. This is what passes for grand strategy in Washington these days under a change president.

I cited this bit of proffered wisdom to select audiences on a recent visit to Germany and Paris. In the former, groups of officials and politicians reacted with equal parts hysteria and hilarity. The French exhibited the traumatic signs of shock and awe: horror and disbelief. An illustrious psychoanalyst in the Heidelberg audience suggested that I receive a kickback for my provoking a spike in Prozac sales. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was so taken with this inane formulation, though, that he repeated it a few weeks ago on a Sunday morning non-news program. The panel respectfully nodded. In a mature, responsible, polity this kind of insult to decent opinion and intelligence would have immediate and dire consequences. Not so in the United States anymore.

Frankly, we find ourselves in the hazardous and slightly ridiculous position of trying to accomplish the impossible at enormous costs in an enterprise for which we have neither aptitude nor method It is a venture aimed at eradicating a greatly diminished threat - al-Qaeda - that may no longer be located where we're hunting it nor capable of much more than elementary survival. The War on Terror is counter productive. We inadvertently have recruited and trained Islamic terrorists in Iraq, we have brought Pakistan to the edge of civil war, and we have ripped to shreds our authority and integrity from Marrakech to Mindanao.

There is no way on Lord's earth that Americans can create a Taliban-free Afghanistan where we are assured that a bunch of bad guys will never again be welcomed in whatever remote corner. Nor can we cleanse Pakistan of the people or the emotions we fear. (Point of information: no Afghan Taliban has ever attacked a Westerner outside of Afghanistan.)

Instead of thinking soberly, we have chosen to inhabit a fantasy island. George Bush founded it; Barack Obama has extended the lease. An enumeration of the bizarre doings we have been up to illuminates the absurdity of our position.

We still see ourselves besieged by the 20,000 jihadists allegedly indoctrinated and superbly trained by bin-Laden before 9/11. Popular imagery, propagated by our leaders, has heroic patriots in the CIA and FBI pouring buckets of hot pitch and scalding water on the fanatics as they scale the outer walls of our national citadel. Ask intelligence professionals, as I have, what we know of these diabolical conspirators and the names run out before all the fingers are ticked off.

We commend the FBI for having 400,000 persons on their "watch list." In other words, the entire bin-Laden alumni association multiplied by 20. That should be a cause for distress - not reassurance. Not only is it a rampant waste of resources but it tells us that the FBI really doesn't have a clue as to whom precisely they should be shadowing - if in fact there is anyone out there except a handful of marginal oddballs who shop for guerrilla gear on eBay (Miami), play paint ball games (Virginia) and collect a hundred tongue depressors (Queens).

We send our turbo-charged diplomats on repeated missions to Kabul and Islamabad that are colorful exercises for displaying our ignorance and our arrogance. Holbrooke makes himself persona non grata by screaming at Karzai in the man's own office. One need not be a Kipling fan, or have access to a crack squad of aces from across the government, to know you don't treat a Pashtun that way. I can say that with some authority having once had a near death experience in the departure hall of Calcutta's Dum Dum airport by looking the wrong way at a hulking Pashtun.

Hillary Clinton's recent foray was a veritable textbook of maladroit maneuvers. In the brief span of a few days, she crossly scolded Pakistani leaders for being too dense to see their imperative interest in igniting a civil war against the Pashtuns. She stonewalled a youthful audience on the issue of drones - perhaps in shock at being posed pointed and intelligent questions of the sort beyond the capacity of the Washington press corps. She turned a deaf ear to popular Pakistani ire at our foisting on them onerous loan conditions that in effect reduce their government to an American proxy. Her over confidence may have stemmed from the extraordinary leverage we have on Pakistan's zombie president Asif Ali Zardari; to wit, his two psychiatrists are in Manhattan - the same two who sent depositions to a London court three years ago affirming their professional judgment that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Perhaps one of the fifty "metrics" being cooked up to measure success in AF/PAK will be whether the prescribed dose of medicine for Pakistan's president rises or falls. As for the photo of Clinton seated before a semi-circle of tribal elders, the best one can say is that a bit of levity must have been welcomed by our sorely tried allies.

The Clinton sojourn was punctuated by the revelation that President Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai - top warlord of Kandahar, has contracted with the CIA on a retainer basis. He provides some of his armed militia men to provide helpful services when not occupied in their main vocation - escorting opium laden truck convoys through treacherous territory. How much the State and Defense departments knew of the deal is obscure. No one has bothered to ask that of Clinton or Gates or the White House.

Secretary Clinton's next port of call was Israel where she outdid herself in driving yet another stake through our other zombie interlocutor, the virtual Palestinian President Mr. Mahmoud Abbas. Already disgraced in the eyes of his own people by bowing to Washington's pressure to forgive and forget Israeli's bloody assault on Gazans in January, he now is instructed by the White House to ignore the uncomfortable fact that Bibi Netanyahu called Obama's bluff on the settlement "ultimatum." The latest watchword is that Netanyahu has made generous, "unprecedented" concessions to which Abbas should respond by adding one more sword thrust to his already well perforated body.

Meanwhile back in Washington, our pair of hyper ambitious generals - David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal - have thrown all their resources into the latest offensive aimed at pushing another American president to go for broke. Their rendezvous with destiny is now Obama's. McChrystal, lest we forget, was author of the self-serving Pat Tillman myth and the man who institutionalized torture at Camp Cropper in May 2003. Now he is authoring "hearts and minds" strategies - evidently a man for all seasons.

In the duo's current dubious battle, they are given encouragement by the nation's editorial writers and receive near unanimous backing from the capital's galaxy of think tanks. The famed Rand Corporation is using millions of Pentagon dollars to pursue the Mother of All Counter-Insurgency Studies. The project is promising, one of its directors former Ambassador James Dobbins told me, because it wisely has set as two positive reference points for successful, foreign led counter insurgency efforts: Vietnam and Iraq. We all have ways of amusing ourselves - I guess.

Around the Web

Foreign Policy - The AfPak Channel

David Ignatius - A Three-Pronged Bet on 'AFPAK' - washingtonpost.com

The Real Afghan Issue Is Pakistan - WSJ.com

Progress on Afghanistan and Pakistan - WSJ.com