Monday, July 14, 2008

A Looming Trap In Afghanistan Awaits The Unwary

In an Op-Ed piece in this morning’s New York Times, Barack Obama says he wants to be out of Iraq by the summer of 2010 but wants to send 10,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.

Obama's editorial is thoughtful and far more sensible than anything we are hearing from the White House or McCain, and I agree with most of it. But I have one quibble and one major critique. The quibble is that Obama talks about leaving a small American force in Iraq after most of the troops are withdrawn, to continue to fight "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia."

This isn’t plausible for several reasons. If there is only a small force in the country, who will rescue them if their helicopter gets shot down or they are ambushed and besieged? How would a small American unit be any good against a terrorist organization operating in remote parts of Sunni Iraq? They don't know Arabic, don’t understand tribal rivalries and can't hope for really good intelligence from locals.

Wouldn't it be more efficient to let the Special Police Commandos of the Iraqi Interior Ministry take care of this sort of thing? By the way, Juan Cole reports that no one seems to be calling themselves "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" any more on the jihadi bulletin boards. The main fundamentalist vigilante group is the "Islamic State of Iraq."

And then there is the problem that the Iraqis are demanding veto power over US operations in Iraq, a demand that will only grow with time. If they don't concur that a Sunni group are terrorists, Baghdad could just keep the US unit cooling its heels. It is precisely over issues such as Iraqi demands that US troops get permission before acting that has totally derailed negotiations between Bush and al-Maliki on a Status of Forces agreement, according to The Washington Post. Now the two leaders seem likely to do just some quick and dirty executive-to-executive understanding that may not last past Bush's last day in office. So the Iraqis are unlikely to want a special forces unit of the sort Senator Obama envisages running around Iraq at will.

Anyway, it will be over with by then. Iraqis want their sovereignty back.

The way to get out of Iraq is to get out of Iraq.

The major critique I have is that Obama keeps talking about intensifying the search and destroy missions being carried out by US troops in Pushtun areas of southern Afghanistan. We should have learned in Vietnam: Search and destroy missions only alienate the local population and drive people into the arms of the insurgency.

The cost of such guerrilla struggles is high. On Sunday, Pushtun guerillas attacked a remote base manned by US troops under NATO command; nine Americans were killed and another 15 wounded. Many more "Taliban" were no doubt killed. But the evidence is that the Afghan insurgents are getting better at fighting the US.

When was the last time that an al-Qaeda operative was captured in Afghanistan by US forces? Is that really what US troops are doing there, looking for al-Qaeda? Wouldn't we hear more about it if they were having successes in that regard? What is reported in the press is that they are fighting "Taliban." But I'm not so sure these Pushtun rural guerrillas are proper Taliban (which means 'seminary student.') The original Taliban have been mostly displaced as refugees into Pakistan. These 'neo-Taliban' don't seem to have that background. A lot of them seem to be just disgruntled Pushtun villagers in places like Uruzgan.

There has also been a rise of suicide bombings in Afghanistan, on a scale never before seen. Robert Pape has demonstrated that suicide bombings typically are carried out by people who think their country is under foreign military occupation. If the US keeps sending more troops, how will that really calm things down?

I don't know whether Senator Obama really wants to try occupying Afghanistan militarily even more than is now being attempted. I wish he would first talk to some old Russian officers who were there in the 1980s. Of course, it may be that this announced strategy is political and for the purposes of having something to say when McCain accuses him of surrendering in Iraq.

If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don't think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far less winnable even than Iraq. If playing it up is politics, then it is dangerous politics. Presidents can become captive of their own record and end up having to commit to things because they made strong representations about them to the public.

Search and destroy in Afghanistan is an awful example of going overboard. My advice to his campaign team is to give more thought to how he can take a strong enough position on an issue to win on it, without giving away the whole store.

We who admire him don't want Afghanistan to become an albatross around the neck of a President Obama. I am old enough to remember one of the things that nearly killed the Democrats as a presidential party was the way Lyndon Johnson let himself get roped into gradually ramping up the number of US troops in Vietnam from a small force to 500,000, and then still not win.

Afghan tribes are fractious. They've been feuding for centuries. Their territory is vast and rugged, and they know it like the back of their hands. Afghans are Jeffersonians in the sense that they want a light touch from the central government, and heavy handedness drives them into rebellion. Stand up Karzai's army and air force, give him some billions to bribe the tribal chiefs, and let him apply the carrot and stick himself. We need to get out of there. "Al-Qaeda" was always Bin Laden's hype. He wanted to get us on the ground there so that the Mujahideen could bleed us the way they did the Soviets. It is a trap.