Thursday, June 23, 2011

Afghanistan: from Express Lane to Exit Ramp. . . to Pakistan?

For what they're worth, some observations and reflections on Mr. Obama's speech this evening, the centerpiece of which was his announcement that the drawdown of US "Surge" forces in Afghanistan will begin sooner, and accelerate more quickly, than General Petraeus and the Pentagon had recommended:
  • kudos to Obama for having the courage, this time, to stand up to Petraeus et al. - as opposed to when he first announced the 30,000-troop Surge, when the generals boxed in a very inexperienced (and probably overawed) president
  • the fact of the matter, however, is that even after those 30,000 troops are out (by end of 2012), the US will still have upwards of 70,000 soldiers still there.  Economic realities - as well as Obama's declaration that it's time to re-focus on nation-building here at home - dictate that Obama (assuming he's still president - something tonight's announcement was designed to ensure) will follow through with more withdrawals after 2012.  And, in fact, White House officials have admitted (in NYT report) that Obama is now trying to put the best face he can on a plan for a three-year retreat.
  • As US troops are withdrawn, how will that impact the morale of troops still there, or to deploy there in the months ahead?  The momentum now is from the fast lane toward the exit.  US forces may still win individual engagements, but they now know that Obama has no hope of "defeating" the Taliban.  The best they can do is keep them at bay, and hope that the Afghan military will be able to hold its own 3 years hence.  No one is betting the ranch on that outcome.  The military is beset with corruption, illiteracy, drug addiction, and ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and everybody else.  And even without those problems, a modern army needs a modern economy to pay for it; but as this NYT piece reminds us, Afghanistan is nowhere near that point.  All of which raises John Kerry's famous question of decades ago, slightly amended: Who wants to be the last soldier to die in a lost war?  Yet . . .
  • One wonders if we've set the stage for a new war, with a putative ally whose military and people we've enraged with our policies and actions.  As Obama made clear this evening, it's Pakistan that now gives the US most concern. As the NYT notes:

In his speech, Mr. Obama invited Pakistan to expand its peaceful cooperation in the region, but he also noted that Pakistan must live up to its commitments and that “the U.S. will never tolerate a safe haven for those who would destroy us.”

Pakistan has already made it clear, however, that it will never allow American forces to be based there. As relations have turned more hostile with the United States in recent months, it has refused to issue visas to large numbers of C.I.A. officers and seems to be moving quickly to close the American drone base in Shamsi, Pakistan.

For their part, administration officials make it clearer than ever that they view Pakistan’s harboring of terrorist groups as the more urgent problem. “We don’t see a transnational threat coming out of Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said Wednesday in briefing reporters before the president’s speech. Later he added, “The threat has come from Pakistan.”

Those realities have placed increasing pressure on Obama administration officials to secure some long-term success from the war in Afghanistan. That is by no means guaranteed. As the bulk of international forces leave, the country may yet descend into civil war and chaos.

And as that descent happens (and rest assured, it will - and the US hasn't the power to stop it), there seethes next door a nuclear-armed country whose citizens have come to distrust and detest the US, and whose military (as Fareed Zakaria highlights) harbors Islamist, jihadist elements who may be undermining the army's traditionally secularist orientation:
As U.S. forces are gradually withdrawn over the next three years, it is Pakistan’s 600,000-strong army that will become the dominant military force in the region and will try to shape its future. But that military is undergoing a deep internal crisis of identity, its most serious since Pakistan’s founding in 1947. How it resolves this crisis will determine its future, the future of the Afghan war — and much else. . . .
Islamist ideology is replacing strategy. For 60 years, Pakistan’s military has focused obsessively on its rivalry with India. Large elements within that military appear to be switching obsessions, and the United States is replacing India as the organizing principle around which Pakistan’s military understands its national security interests. If this happens, not only is the Afghan war lost but Pakistan itself is also lost.

UPDATE on McCain-Graham: I must admit that it's not often that I find myself on the same side of the fence as George Will, but his essay highlighting John McCain's penchant for dispatching young Americans to die in faraway lands (and spotlighting Lindsey Graham as playing Sancho Panza to McCain's Don Quixote) aligns with some of what I've been noting of late.  GW particularly puts the wood to McCain's invocation of  Ronald Reagan as a GOP leader who'd never think of withdrawing Americans from a fight:

Although Barack Obama’s shifting reasons for the Libyan war are as risible as his denial that it is a war, some conservatives seem to regard it as “a splendid little war.” That was Ambassador John Hay’s description (in a letter to Theodore Roosevelt) of the Spanish-American War. McCain has frequently expressed admiration for TR, the only president who was an unvarnished imperialist  . . . .

Regarding Libya, McCain on Sunday said, “I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today.” Wondering is speculation; we know this:

When a terrorist attack that killed 241 Marines and other troops taught Reagan the folly of deploying them at Beirut airport with a vague mission and dangerous rules of engagement, he was strong enough to reverse this intervention in a civil war. Would that he had heeded a freshman congressman from Arizona who opposed the House resolution endorsing the intervention. But, then, the McCain of 1983 was, by the standards of the McCain of 2011, an isolationist.

There's something almost Pavlovian in McCain's responses to any suggestions that US troops be extricated from overseas theaters before "victory" and "honor" have been won.  Methinks the man now inhabits an aging war hero's version of cloud cuckoo land.  And I mean that with no disrespect.  He paid a huge personal price as a war prisoner, and the country will be forever in his debt.  But his thinking has become so mired in a reflexive rigidity as to suggest that the nation might be better served by a new senator from Arizona.

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