Editor's Page

Afghanistan: Obama's Waterloo?

In pre-election articles on this page, I lauded Barack Obama for his intelligence, wit, candor and his harsh criticism of the war in Iraq. I know, he also said that the war in Afghanistan was justified, but mishandled from the beginning. I even agreed with that, but never thought it really meant that he would try to pull the burnt potatoes out of the fire and try again.

Now Obama is a smart guy, perhaps too smart for his own good. After all, he knows the history of and anthropology of Afghanistan; he knows that both the British and the Soviets tried to subdue it and failed. And he also must know – or at least should know – that the U.S. is unlikely to succeed. But it looks like he's been listening to his generals.

Barack Obama has no military experience. So he probably doesn't know that an officer is a guy who gets promoted automatically but slowly in peace time, and much more quickly during a war – if he keeps one side of his nose clean, that is, doesn't get into trouble; and the other side as brown as it gets (no racial pun intended). Officers receive yearly efficiency reports written by their immediate superior. So brown-nosing is the order of the day, every day. And once they get beyond captain, in war, they sit back in safety and send the grunts to get killed and maimed. Their job is war, and they love it as long as they are safe. And generals are the quintessence of the art. Only when they retire does the truth sometimes come out, a la Eisenhower – that war is hell and peace is a hell of a lot better.

So how can we explain Obama's decision to throw another 30,000 soldiers into the Afghan cauldron? Politics and wanting to be loved? Having it both ways? He's sending more troops and will now have over 100,000 – but almost as soon as they get there, he's pulling them out. Who's kidding whom? It is reminiscent of Communism causing the withering away of the state by installing a dictatorship of the proletariat.

I'm not suggesting that Obama isn't serious about his intention to pull the troops out – or starting to pull them out, maybe. The question is whether he will have the nerve to do so. The defense secretary, the National Security Adviser and the Secretary of State (to give them names: Gates, Jones and Clinton) have been massaging congress and the Republicans by saying the July 2011 pull out date is “flexible” and “depends on the situation on the ground”, only a handful will leave in 2011 (Gates); a medley of metaphors: “it's a ramp, not a cliff” (Jones). So – if the situation on the ground hasn't markedly improved and the Taliban haven't been … what? Defeated? Under control? Bought off? Whatever. So what happens if the Afghan government hasn't re-invented itself and become an honest, democratic Little America, and its President stops dressing like the Wizard of Oz? Does Obama seriously think any of these things is going to happen? Having observed his uncharacteristically downbeat demeanor during the speech at West Point, I think not.

National Security Adviser General James Jones (once a marine always a marine) stated publicly a few months ago that there are only about 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and 27,000 Taliban. (He probably wishes now that he hadn't been quite so candid.) So why can't 100,000 plus soldiers armed with the most sophisticated, modern armament subdue 100 Al Qaeda and a few thousand of their Taliban allies? The American soldiers go there for one year tours, or a bit longer, and by the time they have an inkling of what they're doing, they leave and fresh troops arrive who must go through the learning process all over again – before they leave. The enemy, however, is at home and isn't going anywhere. The same thing happened in Vietnam, as opposed to World War Two (which could be called a just war), when the troops stayed until it was over. The Qaeda/Taliban few are essentially a mobile, highly motivated guerrilla force in an unforgiving home terrain, and we know from Vietnam that the best equipped conventional army cannot successfully engage that kind of enemy. They will disappear into the mountains of Pakistan or merge with the local populations when the force appears and return when it leaves. Is it so hard to remember that 9/11 was accomplished by a handful of fanatics that an army in foreign lands would have been helpless to thwart, but some intelligent local security measures would have prevented?

President Obama didn't have the nerve to say: This war is unwinnable and it is therefore a waste of human lives (American and allied soldiers as well as many more Afghan civilians) and money – an enormous amount of the latter to be supplied by a rapidly emptying treasury. So he may not have the nerve to say it in July 2011 either. Admittedly, if he had announced the beginning of a withdrawal instead of a “surge”, and at any time afterward a serious terrorist attack in America were to occur, it would unleash the right wing hounds of war sitting in their plush pundit or political pulpits, not to mention the military brass.[See P.S. below] Gen Petraeus would run for president, might even win. But remember when Truman had the courage to fire Gen. MacArthur – a far more popular warrior than Petraeus – and got away with it.

After writing the above, I watched Obama give his Nobel Prize speech in Oslo. It was an eloquent, nuanced, professorial, philosophical lesson in Realpolitik. At times he seemed embarrassed, especially at the beginning when he admitted that he hadn't really accomplished much yet and that there were others more deserving. But the Nobel committee knew all that and said as much. They were rewarding Obama for the about-face (well, 45º turn) from George Bush's policies, from stick waving to diplomacy, for the return of the United States to the community of nations and for the hope he represents.

Waxing philosophical, Obama said “For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.” This is not as obvious as it sounds. Many believe that evil is merely the absence of good, and if all men were only good we would not speak of evil. True, but the fact that all men are not good, even if the evil ones are a minority, their existence argues for the objective existence of evil. Either way, Obama used the argument in an attempt to define a “just war”.

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

An apparently logical argument which, however, is untrue in the case of Afghanistan. “Militaries” do not keep the peace; they exist in order to wage war, which may be defensive or offensive. During the Cold War Obama's statement was partially true. The U.S. and the Soviet Union said to each other: Don't you dare attack me because I am too strong and will destroy you if you do. Because both sides took the argument to heart, a relative peace was kept – between the two powers at least, which needed each other to justify military expenditures. But meanwhile there were wars in Korea, Vietnam (U.S.) and Afghanistan (S.U.), which directly involved those two powers using less powerful countries as surrogates. In none of those wars were “humanitarian grounds” involved. They were naked struggles for power. Communism turned out to be an empty threat to the West; the Soviet Union fell of its own weight, helped by its failed attempt to ingest Afghanistan.

The war in Iraq was not Obama's fault and he is trying hard to extract America from its killing fields. He didn't start the war in Afghanistan, but he's taken it over with a vengeance. Why? Not being a member of the White House inner sanctum, I don't know; but I can guess. First of all, Obama recklessly used Afghanistan during the election campaign, stating that although Iraq was an outright mistake, the attack on Afghanistan was justified (a just war), because Al Qaeda trained there and the country was in the hands of a nasty group called the Taliban, allied with the former. He vowed to send more troops to that country. So how could he go back on that vow? Then there's the pressure from the military-industrial complex, which has the Republican party (and some Democrats) and viciously vocal elements of the media (Fox News and certain radio outlets) in its pocket. He must think of the consequences if he lost Congress in 2010: he would become a figurehead having tea with The Queen. And if he had refused to acquiesce to the generals' demands for more bodies, that might well have happened. It might happen anyway.

The greatest problem with the Afghanistan “surge” (aside from the question as to whether it is “just” or not) is, in my opinion, that it won't work.

It could be worse though. What if Hilary Clinton were president or, God forbid, John McCain? At least Barack Obama has doubts and he hasn't waved the flag all that vigorously. Also, we must remember that he inherited the mess, didn't cause it.

I sincerely hope that I am wrong in this assessment of the situation and the President can have his pie and eat it too; and Afghanistan doesn't prove to be his Waterloo. He still represents hope, for the United States and for the world.

Frank Thomas Smith

P.S. The attempted terrorist attack did occur - on Christmas day - and the right wing fringe lunatics are reacting with their usual cries of outrage - not against the terrorists, but against Obama for being "weak",for not wanting to use the word "war". But fanatics on airplanes with chemicals hidden in their underwear can never be stopped by even a million soldiers. Rather their hate is stimulated by the numbers.