December 10, 2009
It took President Obama months to decide what to do next in Afghanistan; he finally presented his plan at West Point on December 1. Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a lengthy examination of his decision-making process — days and nights of meetings with his advisors, many of whom held widely divergent views. He displayed a comprehensive grasp of the issues, the article recounts, prodding the participants with questions and comments, resembling both "a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner," as one of them put it.
In one sense you can't help placing confidence in this man's judgment. By these accounts, he was not "dithering" but discerning, exercising a measured quest for clarity, not shooting from the hip. And yet, the sheer multiplicity of perspectives among the experts does not inspire confidence at all. The fact that everybody has a different idea on what will work means that nobody really knows what will work.
Even the "what" in "what will work" yields almost as many opinions as there are people to express them. Is the objective to keep Al Qaeda from regaining a "safe haven" in Afghanistan? Is it to keep the Taliban insurgents from regaining their pre-invasion oppressive control of the country? Is it to recruit and train a national army and police force to take over the task of stabilizing the country? Is it to make an end-run on Pakistan, our fickle ally, which may have been the terrorists' real safe haven all these years? Is it to do "nation-building" toward a Western-style democracy? Is it to eradicate the opium poppy crop that the Taliban had all but eradicated before the Americans deposed them?
Is it all of the above?
After so much deliberation, it was disconcerting to find the president's decision entirely conventional, preserving General Stanley McChrystal's recommendations almost intact: an Iraq-like "surge" of 30,000 more troops, a temporary deployment that would "get the job done" in a year and a half and pave the way for withdrawal.
In his speech at West Point, the president presented himself as absolutely sure of the outcome: "We will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months."
"Will"? Not "could," "should," or "might"? You'd like to trust Obama's rhetoric of certainty, but will-power never seems to have succeeded in Afghanistan; from the British to the Russians to the Americans, the wheels of their military juggernauts have all bogged down in the mountainous muck.
What are the American people to think of all this, we who are supplying most of the troops and are financing this operation to the tune of $100 billion a year? Obama's approach may have been a stroke of political genius in disarming Republicans with an escalation and Democrats with a drawdown, but it leaves honest ordinary citizens in confusion. What in the world is going on there?
This isn't World War II, and it isn't Vietnam either; in both those instances you had a unified government and military to fight; here you have the elusive, hydra-headed Taliban, everywhere and nowhere at once. (Obama, flouting conventional usage purposely, I think, referred to the Taliban in the singular — "the Taliban is" — though the word in Pashto is the plural of talib, meaning "student," and the reality is plural too.) This isn't even an Iraq, with its long history of dictatorship and powerful standing armies; here you have a kind of virtual country, ruled locally by countless warlords. The nominal "central government" commands little respect or loyalty; how can Western military advisors, no matter how skillful, recruit and train an indigenous army and police force when it's payoffs, not patriotism, that's the major inducement for joining up?
And speaking of payoffs, there's talk of trying to duplicate Iraq's "Anbar Awakening" by luring warlords and Taliban cells over with dollars — a most ironic strategy, given that bribery is endemic in the country and allegiance is as fungible as money is.
Frankly, there doesn't seem any way out of Afghanistan except the way out — but that course was impossible for Obama, who has long labeled the occupation as a "war of necessity" and took any option for immediate withdrawal off the table at the beginning of his consultations.
The Taliban can never be defeated because they're not an army but a movement; they can only be managed, and they may best be managed by the warlords themselves. The allegorical "war on terror," inherited from the Bush vocabulary, cannot be "won" by killing off a few Al Qaeda along the Pakistan border because terrorist cells are all over the world, connected by computer; they can only be inhibited by enhanced surveillance and prudent covert operations.
The example of Greg Mortenson, the intrepid American who is building schools in Pakistan, seems to make far greater sense than further military action: He has pacified whole areas there by offering what people really want — an education, to give them their own way out and up.
One hundred billion dollars a year to support 100,000 troops makes easy math for Mortenson — that's a billion dollars per soldier, and for the cost of keeping just one soldier he says he could set up and run 20 schools.
Wouldn't that be a better way to win hearts and minds? Wouldn't that be change we can believe in?