Afghanistan: Obama's Afghan Predicament
The US is reviewing its Afghan policy after the US commander in Afghanistan General McChrystal lobbied for 40,000 additional troops arguing that US was facing failure without them in Afghanistan. This is the second review of Afghan policy by this administration and if the General’s request is honored it will be the second surge in Afghanistan under Obama’s command.
General McChrystal, who is widely rumored, to have captured Saddam Hussein and killed Al Qaeda leader Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq is a former back-ops commander. He is now in Afghanistan and reports that the 100,000 plus Western troops cannot deal with the rising power of the Taliban and risk being defeated.
The situation in Afghanistan is indeed very serious. There is no doubt about it. The Taliban have in the last one year nearly quadrupled their numbers, going from 7000 to over 25000, according to US intelligence. The Taliban fighters have also become more aggressive and effective in their ability to engage western forces. While their numbers have increased four times, their military activities have increased hundred times. British sources reveal that now British forces have to fight the Taliban seven times a day!
Additionally the project of national building lies in tatters. The rigged elections have undermined the credibility of US sponsored democracy and the developmental projects have been very slow in implementation. The deaths of civilians by US attacks have increased and so has anti-Americanism giving boost to the Taliban.
The enemy, to make matters worse is proving to be very resolute, cunning, resourceful and brazen. In the past few weeks, they have attacked the Pakistani army’s national head quarters, they have blown up the Indian mission in Kabul, attacked an Italian Patrol, attacked a NATO in Kabul, and attacked a US military base in Kamdesh causing heavy casualties and eventual closure of the base. They have killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the borders. The year 2009 has become the deadliest for US and its allies.
To compound the problem, the US now faces dwindling support for the war at home (only 40% of Americans support it) and the appetite for war is declining in NATO allies, especially in Britain and Italy. Italian leader Berlusconi has promised that Italian and Western troops will soon be out of Afghanistan. All of this means that President Obama will have to fight an increasingly unpopular war – that he has repeatedly labeled as necessary – with less public and ally support and against a progressively stronger enemy.
The decision that President Obama faces is very difficult. His options are few and none of them is promising. If he expands the war by sending another 40,000 US troops into Afghanistan, the chances of alienating Afghans and exacerbating anti-Americanism across the region – something that he has struggled against since becoming President – will increase. Nothing acts more effectively as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and the Taliban than the sight of US soldiers. It is also not clear that this will be the final surge.
If he decides to shrink the war; withdraw from Afghanistan and only focus on Al Qaeda in Pakistan as suggested by Vice President Biden; Afghanistan will be surely lost to the Taliban. Once again it will become a safe haven for extremism, anti-Americanism and Al Qaeda. We will be back in October 2001.
If he opts for a middle way; no withdrawal, and no major surge, but some escalation. There is a word for this strategy in the dictionary – half measures. It will send a signal to the US military that the President does not value the advice of their commanders and it will convince the Taliban that the US is rapidly losing the stomach for a prolonged battle and will only inspire them to escalate their efforts.
What the President needs to do is to think outside the box. He needs to understand that the Taliban is a regional force that seeks regional goals and may never become a global force. America is not and has never been the Taliban’s target. Al Qaeda on the other hand is a global agency that targets the US and exists solely to undermine what it sees as US imperial designs in the Muslim World.
My suggestion is that for now he make truce with the Taliban and focus on Al Qaeda.
If he can defeat them in Pakistan, reform health care at home, reduce unemployment, bring peace to the Middle East, save the environment, survive Rush Limbaugh and and retain the White House in 2012, then perhaps he can try to achieve what Alexander the great, the British Empire, The Soviet Empire and the American Empire under Bush failed to achieve – subdue the Afghans.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was also published at Delaware Online on October 13, 2009.