Obama Must Tell It Like It Is On Afghanistan
Think back to the summer of 2009. The world waited as President Obama had meeting after meeting with his military chiefs to decide what strategy to take in Afghanistan. Speculation mounted. Was he going to escalate the conflict, as General McChrystal wanted? Or was he going to accept that no foreign force had ever fully pacified Afghanistan, and that given the mounting cost and public opposition, he would begin to end the other war that President Bush started? He had, after all, won on a platform of change, and although a de-escalation was not likely, it was possible.
When he finally decided to send 30,000 extra troops, the reason he gave for taking so long to decide was that he was wrestling with a genuine dilemma: if he showed too little resolve, the Taliban would be emboldened. But if he showed too much, the painful process of handing ownership of security to Afghan military and police forces, with all the training, discipline, and steel needed for that task, would not happen. The question was how to reinforce the US presence without removing the Afghan army's incentive to step up and begin to take control of security itself. There was a real danger that Afghan officials would simply accept that the American military was there for the long-term, and the serious effort needed to build a viable state structure could wait.
I take us back to President Obama's 2009 decision because at the time, I believe the best and worst-case scenarios looked roughly as follows.
The best-case scenario looked roughly like this: the military begins not only to make serious incursions into territory previously held by the Taliban, but hold it, and their building on it begins to win local support. President Karzai accepts rhetorically that the 2011 provisional date to start withdrawal means that he would have to take real responsibility for governance and security. He backs that up by stepping up the training of the Afghan army and police force. The elections pass off without too much incident and are free and fair by Afghanistan's standards. Ordinary Afghani people begin to allow themselves to hope that their country is moving in the right direction, and a democratic Afghanistan had a chance of standing on its own two feet once allied forces began to come home. The Afghan army learns the lessons about how to contain insurgency, and prepares to take control in some of Afghan's regions.
The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, looks roughly as follows. Military incursions, such as the mission to retake Marjah, are unsurprisingly successful, but holding onto the previously Taliban area and winning over hearts and minds for local people proves tough, as they face reprisals and even murder from the Taliban for cooperating with Allied projects. Allied soldiers cannot tell Taliban from regular villages, and those supervising investment projects worry aloud that they are handing money directly to their enemies.
A Presidential election marred by suicide bombings and other violence is won by President Karzai, after the government openly admits to paying local warlords to 'deliver' their regions electorally. Afghanistan becomes not only the world's biggest supplier of opium, but of hashish as well. The newly-elected Karzai then tries to dismember the remaining flimsy democratic constraints, and, when prevented, claims that the West rigged the election and warns them that they risk being seen as invaders. He responds to being disinvited by the White House by petulantly inviting Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to give one of his trademark anti-American tirades in the Afghan Presidential palace while the US Defense Secretary is in the country. Karzai also says that he could reach a settlement with the Taliban but that U.S. officials are preventing that in order to prolong the war and their military presence in the region. The former UN leader in the region then claims that the Afghan President is on drugs. And to top it all, journalists claim that US soldiers have committed atrocities which go unreported by a pliant press corps. There are claims that Special Operations Soldiers have slaughtered three Afghan women – one pregnant – in a night-time raid, and then reached into their bodies to dig out the bullets, the better to cover their tracks.
By far the scariest aspect is that all this – the worst case scenario – is exactly what has happened.
I sketch out the scenario in this way not to be defeatist, but to illustrate the point that the vital non-military component of the allies' Afghan mission is going just about as bad as it could be going right now. Politically, this gives the Obama administration a dilemma. If they communicate to the public the situation in Afghanistan, Republicans will accuse the President of a lack of leadership and Democrats will be hounded over it in the mid-terms come November. But fail to communicate it, and they will not credibly be able to argue for either withdrawal or escalation come 2011.
Honesty is the least bad option for the Obama administration. He should address the concerns, and acknowledge that the deployment is not going as he had hoped. That way, he can begin to lay out the groundwork for how he is going to turn this around, and take the American people with him. Or, even better, how he is going to facilitate power-sharing with the least extreme Taliban, and bring American troops home, before the situation gets any worse.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
This article also appeared on huffingtonpost on April 8, 2010: