Obama's Afghan test

Salena Zito
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Posted: Aug 30, 2009 8:14 AM

The Afghan war belongs to President Obama. He may not have broken it but by his rhetoric, his actions and his commitments, he now owns it.

The question for the president, politically and strategically, is whether we need to fight this war for our own nation’s security. If we succeed in Afghanistan, will we merely push the battle lines into Pakistan? That would be even more threatening to our security.

“The situation in Afghanistan is akin to a multi-dimensional game of chess,” said Mark Davidson, former member of the Clinton administration and a Navy Reserve captain. “No move, activity or effort is unrelated.”

Obama faces deep political consequences, too, for the choices he makes regarding Afghanistan.

His worth as a progressive hawk is being tested: record-setting casualties, a sketchy Afghan election, an insurgency that never stops growing, murmurs that this a war that America and her NATO allies cannot win.

The problem with stability in Afghanistan is Afghanistan itself: Remote, mountainous and with very limited infrastructure, it has been inhabited since the dawn of time by diverse ethnic and tribal groups that still operate on a barter economy rooted in a feudal system.

Trying to separate the bad guys from the good guys there is like trying to figure out who’s the hero in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Afghanistan has been occupied by foreigners off and on for centuries, as far back as 350 B.C. by Alexander the Great, then by the Persians, the Huns, the British and the Soviets.

That brings us to the 1980s, when America ran a stealth war there against the Soviet Union; the U.S.-trained and -armed mujahideen begat al-Qaeda. America left the war we never officially participated in, but the bitterness towards that abandonment never abated.

The Bush administration did itself no favors by placing Afghanistan on the back-burner in the run-up to Iraq, which allowed the Taliban to reconstitute while we focused on another war.

NATO forces now are trying to carry out a counter-insurgency there, Davidson says: “They enter a region, clear it of insurgents and attempt to create an environment that is stable and secure for the local populace.”

Afghanis want this, but they don't appreciate – and who would? – a foreign military presence. The problem in stabilizing the country, let alone winning the war, is that the central Afghan government apparently does not have the breadth or depth to handle what NATO forces deliver.

As for persuading the Taliban to leave the dark side, well, it depends on which sect, group or tribe you’re talking about.

Not everyone armed with an AK-47 is Taliban all the time; they are not a monolithic entity. They are, at best, a network of tribal groups and warlords. If it works to their advantage to confront NATO and the central Afghan government, they will; if not, they won't.

As all of this plays out, Americans increasingly are losing confidence in the war. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that more than half of respondents believe the war is not worth fighting.

Purdue University political scientist Bert Rockman hopes President Obama can educate Americans about the security consequences of the war. “But no one may wish to listen until we find ourselves in another 9/11,” he says.

It looks as if Obama’s strategy is to buy off and to kill off, he explains: “In other words, buy out the Talibani who are susceptible to a buy-out, and kill off the others.”

Whether that can succeed is another matter.

While some analysts opine that Obama risks the same political fate as Lyndon Johnson, who inherited the unpopular Vietnam War, that may be a stretch.

Yet keep in mind that while foreign policy can destroy a president (as it did LBJ), it almost never saves one (think Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush).

“Obama knows when to give up the ghost,” Rockman says, and “if the war goes badly, he probably will get us out.”

At what cost, however?

Vietnam was one thing; it wasn’t going to attack us.

Yet if the Taliban agrees not to harbor terror organizations again, as it did al-Qaeda pre-9/11, we may settle for that – even at the severe cost of human rights, especially of women, in Afghanistan.

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