Obama in Afghanistan
Addressing the nation on Tuesday from Bagram Air Base, President Barack Obama declared the advent of a new, post-war era in the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan. During his six-hour unannounced visit Obama signed an agreement with President Hamid Karzai that is supposed to define the role of the U.S. after the scheduled departure of American troops in 2014. The TV address—filled with contradictions, omissions, and half-truths—indicates that Obama is prepared to misrepresent the failed U.S. mission in Afghanistan as a success in order to help his reelection. An ad-hoc analysis follows, with the President’s words in italics.
“Today, I signed an historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries—a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states; a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins.”
Hundreds of agreements signed by U.S. presidents over the decades have been called “historic,” including several high-profile ones from the Cold War era—agreements involving serious partners in charge of serious countries—yet they are mostly long forgotten.
A generation from now the “Strategic Partnership Agreement” (SPA) signed by Presidents Obama and Karzai on May 1, 2012, will be forgotten, too. It may be vaguely remembered by a few historians specializing in the U.S. foreign policy in the early 21st century, and even then only for its sheer frivolity. The sole detail that matters is negative: the SPA does not commit the U.S. to the maintenance of any troop levels or funding after 2014; the pending exit will be conclusive. The rest is wishful thinking bordering on the surreal, including:
- “Protecting and Promoting Shared Democratic Values” (Afghanistan reaffirms its strong commitment to inclusive and pluralistic democratic governance, including free, fair and transparent elections, and to protecting human and political rights.)
- “Advancing Long-Term Security” (The U.S. will designate Afghanistan a “major non-NATO ally,” and after 2014 will support training and equipping the government forces.)
- “Reinforcing Regional Security and Cooperation” (Working with regional countries and organizations in fighting terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering.)
- “Social and Economic Development” (The U.S. will encourage American private sector investment, with both parties fighting “decisively against all forms of corruption.”)
- “Strengthening Afghan Institutions and Governance” (Afghanistan will promote efficiency and accountability at all levels of the government.)
This is not an agreement. This is a work of romantic fiction hardly worthy of detailed comment (see my Afghan Debacle of February 29). Its cloud-cuckoo quality would be humorous were it not for all the wasted lives and treasure in the decade preceding it.
The rest of President Obama’s TV address had the same absurdist quality as the “historic” agreement itself.
[L]et us remember why we came here. It was here, in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden established a safe-haven for his terrorist organization… It was here, from within these borders, that al Qaeda launched the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children. And so, ten years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us. Despite initial success, for a number of reasons, this war has taken longer than most anticipated.
“For a number of reasons” is a curious turn of phrase which glosses over the problem of flawed strategy. It is true that the initial objective of U.S. military operations was to remove the Taliban regime and deny Islamic terrorist networks a key base of operations, but the chosen method was wrong. A surgical operation against al-Qaeda, a brief occupation of Kabul in the aftermath of 9-11, and a vigorous supervision regime based on pilotless aircraft, should have been enough to demonstrate American resolve, to neutralize terrorist threats, and to satisfy the public opinion at home. Making Afghanistan peaceful, democratic and prosperous—reflected in the Agreement wish-list—had never been an attainable goal. No “strategy” based upon it could be successful.
The initial objective—ostensibly limited and attainable—had morphed under George W. Bush’s presidency into an open-ended exercise in nation building underpinned by grossly wasteful development programs. By the end of his second mandate, the situation on the ground had settled into a stalemate. The Taliban were able to reestablish their more or less permanent presence in the majority Pashtun rural areas in the south; the “allies” held the cities and kept the main roads open; Mohammad Karzai and his corrupt cronies pretended to be a real government.
The Obama administration decided to give Afghanistan higher priority, however. Unlike Iraq—which was treated as “Bush’s war” and eventually terminated on terms far from satisfactory—Afghanistan was adopted as Obama’s own project. Starting in early 2009, the U.S. committed significant additional financial and military resources to the country. The new strategy was twofold. One objective was to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan National Army and police throughout the country and to withdraw U.S. and NATO forces by the end of 2014. The other was to facilitate a power-sharing agreement that would bring the Taliban into political mainstream, thus creating conditions for durable and stable peace in the country after the U.S. withdrawal. Both goals were unrealistic from the outset, as the slow progress on both fronts in 2011 confirmed. Even worse, achieving one without the other was neither useful nor possible: the twin pillars of U.S. strategy were unattainable in isolation from each other. “This war has taken longer than most anticipated” because it was unwinnable on Obama’s own terms—and it remains so, contrary to his claim on Tuesday night that “the tide has turned”:
[O]ver the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set—to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild—is within reach. Still, there will be difficult days ahead. The enormous sacrifices of our men and women are not over. But tonight, I'd like to tell you how we will complete our mission and end the war in Afghanistan.
Obama’s claim that his goal all along has been “to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild” is incorrect: that may have been the original goal, but three years ago Obama broadened it. His current twin goals of making Afghanistan secure by transferring security tasks to the Karzai government and by bringing the Taliban into political mainstream are not “within reach.” His strategy started collapsing last February, when a wave of mass protests—triggered off by the burning of Qurans at an American military base—indicated that the fight for Afghan hearts and minds had failed. The violence resulted in several murders of Americans by their Afghan “allies.” This made mockery of the process of Afghanization of security tasks. The key issue of the lack of “partnership” with the Afghan forces was not new. In May 2011, a U.S. Army study established that murders of Westerners by Afghan forces did not represent “rare and isolated events.” Even before last winter there had been little trust between U.S.-led coalition forces and their Afghan “allies,” contrary to Obama’s assurances:
[W]e have begun a transition to Afghan responsibility for security. Already, nearly half the Afghan people live in places where Afghan security forces are moving into the lead. This month, at a NATO Summit in Chicago, our coalition will set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year. International troops will continue to train, advise and assist the Afghans and fight alongside them when needed. But we will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward.
This statement overlooks the crisis in relations which started on March 11th with the killing of 16 unarmed Afghan villagers by a U.S. Army sergeant. The reaction in the country was predictably frenzied. In a symbolic gesture, the Taliban took over the village where the killings took place without a fight. Five days later, Karzai called on U.S. and NATO troops to leave Afghan villages and confine themselves to major bases, and asked for the withdrawal to be accelerated to late 2013. As if anticipating Obama’s TV address, Karzai asserted six weeks ago that the “Afghan security forces have the ability to provide security in the villages of our country.” Both claims were belied by the December 2011 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan, which warned that the war was still essentially a stalemate. Moreover, the “State of the Taliban”—a classified NATO report leaked to the media in February — warned that once the coalition withdraws, “the Taliban considers victory inevitable.”
[B]y the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.
Second, we are training Afghan security forces to get the job done. Those forces have surged, and will peak at 352,000 this year. The Afghans will sustain that level for three years and then reduce the size of their military. And [at the NATO summit] in Chicago, we will endorse a proposal to support a strong and sustainable long-term Afghan force.
The notion that U.S. troops will be able to hand over security to Afghan forces able and willing “to get the job done” is unrealistic. Obama is still sticking to the timetable predicated upon successful Afghanization of operational tasks, but the effort has been badly behind schedule for months. Last summer, Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell admitted that the plan to train Afghan soldiers and police to replace the 100,000 American troops remained plagued by high attrition, corruption, attacks on allied troops and assassinations of Afghan officials by “rogue” members of government security forces. Gen.Caldwell admitted that only one of the 84 infantry battalions trained and fielded by the coalition was ready to operate independently. Obama must be aware that, left to their own devices, those units will disintegrate and a significant minority of their rank-and-file will desert to the Taliban. His address therefore makes sense only as a deliberate bid to conceal from the nation, six months before the election, the fact that the “mission” has failed. That is the true meaning of the “agreement” signed with Karzai, and Obama’s rhetoric seemed to confirm the underlying agenda:
The agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people: as you stand up, you will not stand alone… It includes Afghan commitments to transparency and accountability, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans—men and women, boys and girls… [W]e will work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counter-terrorism and continued training. But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people.
Obama further said that “our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban.” Quite so: the time has come to cut the losses and leave Afghanistan to the devices of its own “men and women, boys and girls.”
A few hours after Obama’s crack-of-dawn departure a suicide car bomber and Taliban militants disguised in burqas attacked a Kabul compound housing hundreds of foreigners, killing seven. This is the shape of things to come. “Tens of thousands of people will be killed here if the Americans pack and get out,” says Afghan independent parliamentarian Mirwais Yasini, who warns that the Taliban would seize power again in just a matter of weeks. He may be right, but that is an Afghan problem. Ensuring lasting peace and stability in the country is theoretically desirable, but neither essential to U.S. security nor likely to be attained.
The final part of Obama’s address promised American assistance in the quest for a lasting political solution, but that is a bad idea. A future intra-Afghan dialogue involving the Taliban and their Pashtun tribal base on the one hand, and Tajiks, Uzbeks and other elements of the Northern Alliance on the other, should be left to the parties concerned. American involvement would be detrimental to success. Confidence-building measures aimed at bringing disparate factions to the table are probably doomed to fail anyway, but they certainly cannot work if one or more of the parties have no confidence in the United States as the facilitator of the process.
After Obama’s television address it is obvious that the Afghan mission is over. From now on the decision-makers’ energies should focus on the technicalities of a swift withdrawal and on the preparation of contingency plans to neutralize any future terrorist threat using drones and missiles. All along, the Taliban had only needed to survive to win, and they have survived. Within weeks or months after the last American soldier leaves Kabul, the Afghan National Army will collapse, Karzai will be killed or exiled, and Afghanistan will be its old unpleasant self. And, more importantly, Barack Obama will likely still occupy the White House.