Thursday, October 1, 2009

Signs of hope on Iran? An even gooier tar-baby in Afghanistan?

Evidently the bilateral talks between the US and Iran, as well as the talks between Iran and the "big powers" at Geneva, have shown some promise.  And along the lines of cooperation with Iran, a must-read is Juan Cole's latest on "beliefs" vs. "reality" about Iran's intentions and actions.

Meanwhile, on the Afghanistan front, even as John McCain tells us that Afghanistan is "easier" than Iraq, Mr. Obama has chaired a long meeting with top advisers, both civil and military, and is resisting pressure to decide quickly.  And according to the Wall Street Journal, Sec Def Robert Gates, who has been a big fan of the Petraeus/McChrystal counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan (which would entail a major "surge" of US forces there), may be coming around to the approach favored by Joe Biden and Gen. James Jones: a more focused effort to keep global jihadists like al-Qaeda from re-establishing themselves there, as well as trying to co-opt some elements of the Taliban.

In this regard, also see this excerpt from the New Yorker's Steve Coll's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which brings in Pakistan's reluctance to cut loose its ties with the Afghan Taliban as long as its leaders are convinced that the US may walk away from there, as well as support India" . . .to weaken Pakistan, by supporting governments in Kabul that at best are hostile to Pakistani interests or at worst facilitate Indian efforts to destabilize, disarm or even destroy the Pakistani state."  Coll's advice: focus US forces in Afghanistan's cities, and ensure that the Taliban can't take control in any of them.  This, of course, is in itself no walk in the park, given recent reports that the Taliban already control Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city.

Quite simply, there is no easy way forward in Afghanistan.  Going "all in," as some have advocated, is probably both militarily and financially unsustainable, nor would it go down well with ordinary Afghans (who already see US forces as occupiers) or some of their leaders.  And it has no assurance of "success," by almost any definition.  But even maintaining a limited military presence there will be costly in both blood and treasure.

Whatever he decides, Obama is going to take some big hits.

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