America has won two wars in Afghanistan in the past quarter-century. First against the late Soviet Union, then against the radical Islamist Taliban. But each time, eminently distractable America has taken its eye off the ball, and the victories have proved evanescent.
Now, under new President Barack Obama, the U.S. is hoping the third time's the charm. But does the new strategy miss the reasons why America succeeded -- to the extent it did -- the first two times around in Afghanistan? Does it meet the announced mission, or lead to something else? And how is it faring so far, in the midst of international conferences and at the beginning of a tour by Obama that takes him to summits in Britain, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Turkey?
A just-concluded conference in Moscow finds some fresh support for the new Obama strategy from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprised of Russia, China and the former Central Asian Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The U.S. and Iran, neither a member of the SCO, participated in the Moscow meeting, at the assistant secretary level. Now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is at the Hague in the Netherlands for a UN-sponsored conference on Afghanistan, looking for more support.
Let's look at some of the latest developments and other factors regarding this fateful new Obama strategy.Barack Obama and John McCain sounded similar themes about the troubled Afghan War while campaigning against each other last July.
** The history factor, as always, looms large, though, as usual, is little discussed. America has actually won two wars in Afghanistan -- so-called "graveyard of empire" -- in the past quarter-century. First against the Soviet Union, playing a major role in breaking the back of the Soviet empire in a Vietnam-in-reverse. Then against the Taliban in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
But in both cases, the US worked closely with and relied upon Afghan proxy forces, which were fighting for their own reasons. There were only small US and British forces inside Afghanistan during those wars. The US value-added was technology, special ops forces, and air power. Which are highly disruptive, but which do not build effective governments.
** The differences with the Bush/Cheney approach are significant but not overwhelming. The biggest difference is that Obama has always been focused more on Afghanistan and Pakistan as the danger zones for the US and its Western allies, whereas Bush and Cheney were much more interested in Iraq and Iran, neither of which were involved with the 9/11 attacks.A new Afghan security force, selected by tribal elders, is being trained now by U.S. Special Forces.
Obama is focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan as a joined crisis, whereas George W. Bush and Dick Cheney thought of Pakistan as a reliable frontline ally far past the vanishing point of reality for that fantasy. And under Obama, the US is focusing more on training Afghan army and police personnel.
The announced mission is different. Bush and Cheney said they wanted to build a sustaining democracy in Aghanistan, though, in the midst of their fateful Iraq fixation, did little, certainly relative to Iraq, to realize that goal.
Obama says the mission now is "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." But the policies he is pursuing to stabilize Afghanistan have a lot of nation-building in them.
It may be that we are not far from being in a position to accomplish our goal of keeping Afghanistan free of Al Qaeda bases, and then turn our attention to AL Qaeda in Pakistan. But the actual mission seems to involve far more.
** The mission creep factor. But, while Obama seems to draw a bright line between counter-terrorism and nation-building, the policies he is pursuing have the built-in possibility, if not likelihood, of mission creep. There's a lot of nation-building in this counter-terrorist strategy.The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, meeting over the weekend in Moscow about the Afghan War, offered support for the U.S.
** The Moscow conference was a reaffirmation of Russian support for the US on Afghanistan, with Russia and Central Asian allies providing supply lines for US and NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan to supplement, if not replace, the traditional routes through Pakistan which are under increasing challenge from jihadists in that deeply troubled country.
The countries agreed that, due to the threats of massive drug trafficking and Islamic jihadism on their doorsteps, helping the US stabilize Afghanistan is a high priority. President Dmitri Medvedev spoke glowingly of Obama, and Kyrgyzstan may relent on plans to expel the US from its base outside the capital city of Bishkek. During the Bush/Cheney years, a few Central Asian bases for US forces emerged after 9/11, but US forces were kicked out, with only the Kyrgyzstan base remaining after some ugly incidents between Americans and local citizens.
** The Hague conference comes a few days before the NATO summit, at which Obama himself will be the main participant and at which Afghanistan will be a major topic. What seems likely at both events is that there will be no new commitments of continental European troops to the fight. There will probably be some new commitments to reconstruction and civil affairs.
The British are offering new troops, as they draw down their force in Iraq to nothing by the fall. The only other new troops on the way to Afghanistan are Australians. They've already pulled out of Iraq, following the landslide defeat of Bush's great friend, Conservative John Howard.
Of course, Australia, being nowhere near Europe, is not a NATO member. But Turkey is.Obama criticized the failing Bush/Cheney policies on Afghanistan last September for too few troops and too little urgency.
** The Turkey factor looms increasingly large for the Obama Administration. Hillary Clinton made Turkey one of her early stops are secretary of state. Obama, after going to Britain, France, Germany, and the Czech Republic on his upcoming first big foreign trip, will finish up in Turkey before returning to Washington. Obama will summit with Turkish leaders and do a roundtable discussion with Turkish students.
Turkey is a major Islamic power, strategically situated, with a stable government, large economy, and powerful military. It can be very helpful to the US in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. We'll see if Turkey, which has shied away from combat situations in Afghanistan, although it helps protect the capital city of Kabul, comes up with more troops for the fighting there out in the countryside.Then Vice President-elect Joe Biden went to Afghanistan 10 days before the inauguration in January.
** The Afghanistan react is favorable, with President Hamid Karzai pleased that a seeming bid to create the post of prime minister as a rival to his much-criticized presidency has apparently been shelved. He's also probably happy that the so-called "minimalist" approach to Afghanistan -- focusing almost exclusively on counter-terrorist operations to the exclusion of the economy and civil society -- was not adopted.
** The Pakistan react is favorable, with President Asif Ali Zardari, hailing the new Obama strategy, promising more cooperation against jihadists, and letting a rival political party resume its rule in the country's largest province, Punjab. Obama promised not to use American ground troops against Al Qaeda and Taliban cadre using Pakistan as a safe haven without consulting with the Pakistani government, though the aerial drone attacks seem to be ramping up. Zardari has to like the former, though not the latter, along with the tripling of US aid for economic and civil society development.
** The India react is favorable, with the longtime bitter rival of Pakistan saying it will support the new US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. We'll start to see what they actually do after Obama meets with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in London. What's most helpful is what India hasn't done, i.e., retaliate for Pakistani links to the Mumbai terror siege of this past Thanksgiving. That could bring the whole house of cards falling down in Pakistan, and Afghanistan as well.
We'll know more in a week. But for now, this looks increasingly like an American show, with some fresh help from longtime allies Britain and Australia, now free from their own Iraq adventures. With tantalizing, strings attached help from Russia, Turkey, and a few others.
It also looks like it could turn into a different show than advertised if Obama is too slow to declare victory.