As Obama is seized with the issue of what to do in Afghanistan, there is more and more discussion of Pakistan, which is good.
I don’t think you can blame Obama for the position he has taken to date on Afghanistan. He correctly determined that the Bush administration had failed terribly in Afghanistan by starting a war and then walking away from it to fight a new war in Iraq. It was unconscionable to walk away from a war while leaving thousands of US troops fighting there. Bush and Cheney flushed the lives of soldiers who died in Afghanistan down the toilet, starting with Pat Tillman. Obama said that we were going to stop killing these troops for nothing. But in doing so, he stepped into quicksand, because there was no coherent strategy for Afghanistan, just as there was none in Iraq until Gen. Petraeus came up with one for Bush and Cheney. But so far, Petraeus, who oversees Afghanistan from the US, has failed to come up with an Afghan strategy, apparently leaving that task to the general on site, Gen. McChrystal, whose proposal has become a political football. It’s ironic that McChrystal replaced a general there who was fired because of insubordination, although publicly he appeared to be as quiet as a mouse, much quieter than McChrystal. Either this was a botched change of command, or there’s something going on that’s not getting reported, some kind of kabuki drama to get us to a place that’s not currently apparent.
In McChrystal’s defense, I think he is opposed to continuing to see the lives of the troops he commands being flushed down the toilet. Therefore, he might be amenable to a strategy that draws down the troops in harm’s way, if that can be done. On the other hand, if Richard Engel of NBC was right on “Morning Joe” recently, saying that unlike Iraqis the Afghans in general hate the US and just want us out, then there may be no small-footprint strategy that protects US troops. There’s some poll that people cite that only six percent of Afghans like the Taliban, but what if an even smaller percentage like the US?
The other big unknown in this equation is Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons. Both the Taliban and al-Qaeda appear to have migrated from Afghanistan to Pakistan. For a while, it looked like the Taliban were successfully challenging the government of Pakistan. Now Washington Post columnist David Ignatius is omnipresent saying the Pakistan is doing much better against the Taliban and that things are not as bad as they were. But to what extent are the Taliban and al-Qaeda in league with elements of the Pakistani government and leadership elite? Can we be sure they didn’t just agree to cool it to get the US off Pakistan’s back and resume its aid. Once the US is out of Afghanistan, it will much more difficult for it to interfere in Pakistan’s affairs. If you have doubts about the ability of the current Pakistani government to control its nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future, then that’s an argument not to leave Afghanistan.
It’s a little less provable, but it’s arguable that Bush/Cheney led to this impasse in Pakistan by unquestionably supporting former President Musharraf in the absence of any popular democratic support for him. Thus when he left, there were no institutions in place to replace him, especially after the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto.
In any case, Obama is faced with a very difficult decision about a war that he inherited. For him the easiest thing for him to do politically would be to wind it down and walk away from it, declaring it a Bush/Cheney quagmire that he has decided to crawl out of. But is that the best thing for the US? Does that continue the Bush/Cheney decision to flush the lives of fallen American soldiers in Afghanistan down the toilet, i.e., does it devalue eight years of valiant service by American soldiers? Does it undermine American security by allowing Afghanistan to again become a sanctuary for anti-American terrorists? Will it make it easier for terrorists to gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?
I don’t envy Obama.