Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Afghanistan, the black hole

COMMENTARY | September 29, 2009

The international press, far and wide, views Afghanistan as Obama’s Vietnam, with the same result expected. Some urge a U.S. pullout, others see the war spreading into Pakistan.

By Lauren Drablier

PARIS--Talk of the ghost of Vietnam, the possible disintegration of NATO, waning public support and an ever expanding theater of war has the international press asking the question as to whether the war in Afghanistan can ever be won, and what actually, winning would mean.
Many argue that the situation is only getting worse in a place that has never shown mercy on invaders.
Afghanistan, now dubbed the ‘black hole’, is looking less like a victory over ‘hearts and minds’ and more like a very expensive failure for everyone involved.
Rupert Cornwell in the UK’s Independent, writing from Washington, believes the policy of “winning hearts and minds” is looking less likely than ever in Has America reached the turning point in Afghanistan?:
“Spoken or unspoken, behind the debate lurks the shade of Vietnam.
“The stakes are now huge – so huge that the President barely mentioned Afghanistan in his address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday. If Washington is perceived as opposing a further troop build-up, or leaning towards a reduction, then other countries in the coalition, where the eight-year-long war is even more unpopular than here, will rush for the exits.
“Essentially the choice, in strategic jargon, is between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. The latter, implying a broad war against the Taliban to prevent it returning to power, seems to be what General McChrystal has in mind, and has long been backed by Mrs Clinton.
“The Vice-President, on the other hand, wants a narrower focus on al-Qa'ida itself, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where security forces have scored some important recent successes against the terrorist organization and its Taliban allies. Under this approach, the US would require fewer forces in the field.
“Instead of trying to protect the general population from the Taliban and operating a ‘hearts and minds’ policy to win over civilian support, it would concentrate on targeted strikes on al-Qa'ida operatives, relying on unmanned drones, missile attacks and the special forces where General McChrystal is an expert. Simultaneously the training of Afghan government forces would be speeded up.
“A third faction advocates a compromise, either scaling back the requested troop increase, or even starting to reverse it, while at the same time ensuring that the country does not collapse into chaos.
“As Republicans constantly remind him (Robert Gates), for the US to wind down its commitment would send a message of weakness and inconsistency to friends and foes alike. But to press on with a long, inconclusive war in a distant corner of Asia carries well-known and equal perils.
“Once again, events are bearing out the famous aphorism of Mark Twain, that ‘while history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes’.”
A columnist in The Daily Star of Lebanon writes that pulling out from Afghanistan would be prudent and that the focus should be shifted to Pakistan in As the tipping point nears, a US exit from Kabul beckons:
“America’s war in Afghanistan is approaching a tipping point, with doubts about President Barack Obama’s strategy growing.
“Let’s be clear: America’s Afghan war is not winnable, even though Obama has redefined American goals from defeating the Taliban to preventing Al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks on the United States.
“Rather than seeking to defeat the Taliban, the United States has encouraged the Pakistani, Afghan, and Saudi intelligence services to hold proxy negotiations with the Taliban’s top leadership, holed up in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
“The US is fighting the wrong war. After America’s invasion drove Al-Qaeda’s leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan emerged as the main base and sanctuary for transnational terrorists. Support and sustenance for the Taliban and many other Afghan militants also come from inside Pakistan. Despite this, Obama is pursuing a military surge in Afghanistan but an aid surge to Pakistan, which is now the single largest recipient of US assistance in the world.
“To defeat Al-Qaeda, Washington doesn’t need a troop buildup – certainly not in Afghanistan.
“Had Obama’s goal been to rout the Taliban, a further military surge may have made sense, because a resurgent Taliban can be defeated only through major ground operations, not by air strikes and covert action alone. But if the Obama administration’s principal war target is not the Taliban but Al-Qaeda remnants, why use a troop-intensive strategy based on protecting population centers to win grassroots support?
“Gradually drawing down US troop levels makes more sense, because what unites the disparate elements of the Taliban syndicate is a common opposition to a foreign military presence.
“In fact, the most likely outcome of any Afghan power struggle triggered by an American withdrawal would be to formalize the present de facto partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines – the direction in which Iraq, too, is headed.
“As in Iraq, an American withdrawal would potentially unleash forces of Balkanization. That may sound disturbing, but it is probably an unstoppable consequence of the initial US invasion.
“An American pullout actually would aid the fight against international terrorism. Instead of remaining bogged down in Afghanistan and seeking to cajole and bribe the Pakistani military into ending their support for Islamic militants, the US would become free to pursue a broader, more balanced counterterrorism strategy. For example, it would better appreciate the dangers to international security posed by Pakistani terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.”
In Obama makes a plea for Pakistan an Asia Times writer argues that the war will eventually expand into Pakistan and that the US has already begun to make preparations for such a development:
“This next chapter in the war, many experts believe, will be its hottest time to date.
“The Pentagon's rationale for the increase is the upward spiral of Taliban violence - but some feel it has as much to do with protecting Pakistan.
“The Obama administration is worried that if Pakistan changes course and becomes inactive, US forces could be trapped along the border - resulting in an horrific casualty rate that would be catastrophic for the White House in the mid-term US elections next year.
“The indications from different Asia Times Online sources are that next summer the battle between the Taliban and NATO forces will no longer be restricted to Afghanistan - it will expand inside Pakistan. The primary reason for this, sources say, is the deployment of coalition forces in Afghan border provinces such as Helmand.
“Neither Afghan nor NATO authorities have any control in the region - and neither does Pakistan. As a result, it is inevitable that in hot pursuit of the Taliban through the area, NATO troops will cross into Pakistan and expand the war.
“In preparation for the anticipated military expansion, the US has revamped its embassy in Islamabad, taken over a five-star hotel in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, and procured other land in Pakistan. The US has also rented 200 bungalows in the capital - a move now under investigation by Pakistan - and increased the operations of controversial US contractors in the country. The US is seemingly intent on directly targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistani cities.
“What is now a low-intensity insurgency in Pakistan may develop into a full-scale offensive which sweeps through the country. In this scenario, American resources would be insufficient and the US establishment is actively looking for international help.
“In all, it has been a week of unprecedented pleas for international unity with Pakistan - such support was not even seen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Still, pledges of support are not the same as boots on the ground - and as the war in Afghanistan spills into Pakistan, the US may find itself increasingly alone in Islamabad.”
A Pakistan Dawn columnist questions whether the war is crippling Obama in Not Vietnam, not yet:
“President Barack Obama recently asserted that Afghanistan was not Vietnam, which shows his apprehension that Afghanistan is reviving the nightmarish memories of Vietnam that are seared in the American psyche.
“Obama is increasingly giving the impression of a beleaguered leader, confronted by powerful lobbies determined to sabotage his well-intentioned proposals, whether they include domestic health reforms or his Middle East initiative. But it is Afghanistan that could cripple his administration and tar him for all times.
“Gen Stanley McChrystal, Nato commander in Afghanistan, has already warned that without additional troops, the Afghan war is ‘likely to result in failure,’ but Obama’s fellow liberals are accusing him of damaging their electoral prospects, while Republicans are urging him not to succumb to misplaced public sentiments.
“Will mounting setbacks in Afghanistan and growing opposition within the US convince Obama to cut his losses and withdraw his forces from a land popularly known as the ‘graveyard of empires’?
“Nevertheless, any decision to withdraw from Afghanistan without achieving an outright victory — a remote possibility — or even a contrived exit will not be simple. Within the US, Obama is likely to be savaged by the rightwing conservatives and evangelists, who have always had reservations about him, while America’s standing would be further damaged.
“Moreover, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave it with little justification for its growing presence in Central Asia where it has been establishing military bases and other facilities.
“Nato’s ambition to be a global player, operating far beyond its originally envisaged sphere of operations, would be destroyed for the foreseeable future and leave the organisation bereft of any purpose. This would represent a major victory for China and Russia that are seeking to extend their influence deeper in their neighbourhood.
“Britain’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper–Coles, also warned that while the situation in Afghanistan was deeply worrying, abandonment of that country was not an option because ‘walking away would destroy everything that has been achieved.’
“Will all this make the US mission more viable? Only time will tell, though the signs are not encouraging. The ghosts of Vietnam are not likely to be exorcised soon.”
In Time for cashing in the chips on Afghan investment? a Malaysia Star column asserts that there is perhaps no solution, even with an increase in the number of troops:
“McChrystal’s request is backed by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, but not Gates and possibly not – or not yet – President Barack Obama. This week the request gathered momentum, but there are at least a dozen reasons why it may not be fulfilled.
“The first five relate to differences on the side of the occupation.
“There are differences even within the Pentagon, with the dividing line generally drawn between soldiers and civilians.
“Third, Obama’s Democratic Party itself is wavering on the need to continue the fight as US and Afghan civilian casualties mount. And the US public is also increasingly questioning the necessity of the war.
“Another four reasons why tens of thousands more US troops may not be dispatched in the order deemed necessary to neutralise the Taliban insurgency relate to US over-investment already in the occupation.
“There is ideological over-investment in Afghanistan as the just war, Obama’s “war of necessity” as opposed to Iraq being Bush’s “war of choice.”
“There is also political over-investment in Hamid Karzai’s government in delivering the goods it is still failing to deliver.
“And tactically, over-investment in last month’s election to legitimate Karzai’s continued rule is backfiring, as massive fraud works instead to delegitimate his position even more.
“Kabul’s record of corruption and ineptitude. Next, US recognition of these ugly realities combined with pressure on Kabul to come clean is rejected as nosy finger-pointing, provoking Karzai to play the nationalist card and flirt with the Taliban.
“Not least, the conduct of US forces generally has alienated the local population, while their link to Karzai has further estranged the people from the occupation.
“After eight years of misdirection from Washington, mismanagement in Kabul and misconduct on the ground, turning everything around in only another 11 months is virtually impossible.
“Post-Bush, the Obama administration has to ride the Afghan tiger after mounting it with a relish. It must soon decide whether to redefine failure and pull out, risking embarrassment and public disdain, or send more troops and redefine victory, staying a little longer only to withdraw all the same, risking more blood and treasure besides widespread opprobrium.
“Despite all the differences over the occupation, there is practically no disagreement with McChrystal’s view that the war would be “lost” without more troops. Interestingly, he avoided mention of another likely prospect: that the war could still be lost even with more troops.”
A UK Times Online writer in Washington reports that the war in Afghanistan is very likely to end in failure in Worried White House seeks to avoid another Vietnam:
“Mr Obama and his foreign policy circle have begun openly to use language born of the Vietnam disaster, such as “mission creep” and “quagmire”. It is a clear sign that the President harbors doubts about a deeper military commitment in Afghanistan.
“Officials emphasize that Mr Obama wants to be cautious about sending more troops into a war that is now in its eighth year, and is thus considering all options — and could yet accede to General McChrystal’s demands. The greatest factor in the rethink is the unresolved Afghan election and the prospect of having a central government in Kabul regarded as illegitimate and corrupt.
“Mr Obama therefore arrived at the UN General Assembly yesterday with the job of stiffening the resolve of Nato allies — but at a time when he is questioning his own strategy. Several diplomats spoke of their worries over what they saw as a White House ‘wobble’ over Afghanistan.”
In More troops and new strategy for Afghanistan will be hard to come by, a report in Germany’s Deutsche Welle highlights the weariness felt by many countries concerning their continued support to the war:
“While the two pillars - more soldiers and a new strategy - needed to make progress in Afghanistan are clearly laid out in the report, experts and even McChrystal himself are not sure whether they can be implemented by NATO member states where public opinion is growing increasingly weary of the war, now in its eigth year.
“‘More and more people feel that it is a never ending story, that this war has been dragging on now for longer than the second world war, that we see too little results and we really don't know why we are there,” is how Patrick Keller, Foreign and Security Policy Coordinator at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a think tank affiliated with the German Christian Democrats, sums up the shift in the United States.
“What's more, President Obama has a lot of other tough issues to deal with such as the economic crisis, health care reform, Iran's nuclear program and the upcoming climate conference. Still, it will be difficult for him to turn down General McChrystal.
“While the first demand of McChrystal's request - more troops - may be hard to fulfill, his second demand - a new strategy - may prove even harder to implement.
“To win in Afghanistan, argues McChrystal, ISAF troops must eschew their traditional role of combat soldier and switch to that of a counterinsurgency operator who basically lives among the local population and protects it. That, however, as the head of ISAF wrote himself, presents a huge challenge for most troops. "It's going to be very difficult for any other army bar the US, the Brits and perhaps one or two other countries to adopt to this unless we see a real push by the NATO secretary general to turn mentoring of Afghan forces and cooperation with Afghan civilians into a key focus for the alliance," argues Korski.
“But even if ISAF is able to retool its mission, which will take time, it will come with a higher risk for the individual soldier. That in turn could make it difficult to sustain the effort to war-weary constituencies in the US and Europe.”

Posted by BJ
10/12/2009, 12:58 PM

I think we know what wer're in and how deep it is. What we need is a way out.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.