I'm not a big fan of the big escalation in Afghanistan. While there are many things that would be good to do in Afghanistan, there is only one thing that we have to do: Deny it as an operational base for Al Qaeda or other transnational jihadists. As Vice President Joe Biden and others have pointed out, that can be done with far less than the nation-building exercise which ex-President George W. Bush promised and President Barack Obama at times seems bent on delivering. Yet there are some signs that Obama's strategy, which goes well beyond the escalation, is working. Is it?
With a few exceptions, in the form of rebuilding advanced industrial nations that we had smashed, America really isn't very good at nation-building. And now we need to focus on a nation-building project rather closer to home, in that it is at home.
The Taliban stronghold of Marjah in southern Afghanistan was declared captured by U.S., British, Canadian, and Afghan troops on February 27th. Now begins the process of a successful civilian administration of the city, where some 2000 American and 1000 Afghan troops will be stationed for the next few months. The next target will be the other longtime Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
America is getting hollowed out economically. The middle class is in trouble, the poor hanging on by a thread. We all know it. The financial machinations that made a few wildly rich nearly wrecked the country. Yet we are still involved in a rickety nation-building experiment in Iraq after an invasion which looks only more idiotic as time passes and we learn more. We simply don't need another nation-building experiment, much less one in a tribal society in which literacy is rare and corruption is the norm, with narcotics by far the biggest industry.
That said, what I like about Obama's AfPak strategy, though I do not like the big escalation in Afghanistan, is that there is a suppleness to it. It evolves. Or, at least, it seems to evolve. For all I know, what appear to be evolutions in the strategy is merely Obama choosing to reveal new elements of it over time.
Could it be that Obama's strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is actually working?
In early February, the Afghan Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured in Karachi in a joint CIA/Pakistani operation. Baradar is the number two figure beside Mullah Omar.
Since he announced it last November, Obama's big military escalation toward nation-building and "victory" in Afghanistan has morphed into something rather different. Namely, toward a coalition government with major elements of the Taliban.
It's quite similar to what Senator Robert F. Kennedy advocated during the Vietnam War of the 1960s, when he called for a coalition government with the Viet Cong.
Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 before he could become president, so what we got instead of a coalition government in Vietnam was years more of grueling war -- and a slow disengagement under President Richard Nixon -- before an all-out defeat in 1975. It would have been very easy to see how Nixon spun that. He, of course, was long gone, having resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, with only his appointed Vice President Gerald Ford left to preside over the debacle.
General Stanley McChrystal went on national television in Afghanistan 10 days ago to apologize for a wayward air strike on a caravan of civilian vehicles.
What Obama is doing now can be described as "escalation for negotiation." While there are serious diplomatic feelers underway with the Taliban -- as well as efforts to divide leadership elements and buy off others -- there are even more serious military operations underway to dissuade the Taliban from their official stance that they will negotiate upon U.S. withdrawal. Not that the Taliban aren't still trying to disrupt U.S. strategy, as well as resist.
- In Afghanistan, U.S., British, Canadian, and Afghan forces are engaged in mopping up operations in the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Marjah is just the first example of a new type of approach in Afghanistan. The longtime cradle of the Taliban movement, Kandahar, is known to be on this year's target list. That's where Pakistani intelligence helped nurture the religious students movement in the mid-1990s, several years after the ouster of the by then late Soviet Union.
- The former Taliban stronghold of Marjah is only the first target of the plan for southern Afghanistan. Next is the clearing of Kandahar, the historic seedbed of the Taliban in the 1990s, when they emerged, with the great help of the Pakistani intelligence service, in the midst of civil war between various existing Afghan warlord factions after the defeat of the Soviet Union.
The U.S. Marine-led offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in southern Afghanistan began on Presidents Day weekend.
- But the overall Afghanistan operation has suffered severe setback. First, when a dozen civilians were killed in a rocket strike in Marjah. And later, when a U.S. fighter jet attacked a convoy in another part of the country that turned out to be civilian, killing some 33 civilians in the process.
- Obama's prodding of and diplomacy with Pakistan appears to be paying more dividends. In addition to the capture earlier of the Afghan Taliban's number two leader, who is providing intelligence to Pakistani authorities, seven of the 15 members of the organization's leadership council were taken prisoner in mid-February.
- In the past, Pakistani authorities have allowed top leaders of the Afghan Taliban safe haven in Pakistan. After all, the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, practically created the Taliban in the '90s as a way of stabilizing an Afghanistan torn by civil war in the wake of the defeat of the Soviet Union there. Now that appears to be changing.
- In Pakistan, where big jihadist gains that threatened the government were rolled back last year, the military is moving again against jihadists in the frontier regions, though Pakistani officials had said in January that no new operations of that nature would be undertaken for at least six months.
By February 17th, most of Marjah, a principal Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, had been taken, but large minefields and heavy pockets of resistance remained.
- The Afghan Taliban reacted late last week to a string of setbacks by launching another strike in the heart of Kabul. This is a classic pattern, a reminder that the group is still alive and able to dispense death. It's something undertaken when viability is in question. And in this case it was an act designed to stir up problems elsewhere.
So Obama actually has some improvments to point to, something which he should get around to doing. Which I suppose he will, once the long tardy national health care reform bill is finally settled.
But even so, the question remains: Why the big escalation in Afghanistan in the first place? Given that our core objective there is to deny it as a base to Al Qaeda, the actual composition or even existence of a national government is not all that central a matter.
Remember that when Bill Clinton was criticized for not eradicating Al Qaeda, the thrust of the criticism was not that he would not invade Afghanistan and set up a new national government there. It was that he had relied on missile attacks against Al Qaeda, rather than deploying special operations forces into Afghanistan to destroy the camps there. (At least Clinton took Al Qaeda seriously as a threat, the Bush/Cheney team was focused elsewhere, including then National Security Advisor Condi Rice, who prepared a speech [to be delivered on September 11, 2001] on missile defense as the top national security issue.)
Military officials in Pakistan are showing off a mountain that Al Qaeda had been using both as a hide-out and as a place to store weapons, currency and look-alike U.S. military uniforms.
So the idea that we have to run the entire country to prevent jihadists from using it as a base is a major ratcheting up from reality, to say the least.
Of course, Obama is dealing with a very out-of-kilter political situation. This is a country in which stunningly vast numbers of people believe the most viciously errant nonsense about him. That ACORN, a not especially powerful organization, somehow stole the presidential election for him. That he really isn't an American citizen at all. That he is some sort of "Manchurian candidate" figure.
Obama has an unusual name. He's one of America's youngest presidents. And of course he is the first black president. Like most people in both major parties, he's never been in the military. Which, oddly, only seems to matter for Democrats. With a toxic and largely dysfunctional media culture, all this spells big trouble for him.
A "failure" to escalate, even coupled with his far-more-lethal-than-Bush program of air and special ops strikes against jihadist leaders, would have led to inevitable claims that he was "cutting and running" in Afghanistan.
Maybe Obama really does believe that this extremely elaborate set of moves is necessary for success. And maybe he is covering his rear end, considering that one has to be president in order to act as president.