September 13, 2009
The war Obama is bound to loseBy J. Robert Smith
America doesn't lose wars on battlefields. In fact, the only war the nation has lost -- Vietnam -- was lost in the political arena. That's precisely where Barack Obama will lose Afghanistan. The loss, principally, will be thanks to the left in his party and his own limits as a commander in chief.
For a liberal like Mr. Obama to make the claim that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" means that the United States has a critical national security stake there. Yes, during the Bush presidency liberals scored rhetorical points by maintaining that the "real" war was in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Iraq, they argued, was a distraction and a folly. Mr. Obama was part of the chorus.
Democrats used the Afghanistan versus Iraq argument as a way of reassuring voters that they weren't soft on terrorism; that they had the smarts and spine to stand up to the nation's enemies where they really were.
Since the President's election, though, liberal voices have become quieter and quieter. Liberals have lost their stridency about fighting the "right" war in Afghanistan.
The 21,000 additional troops that Mr. Obama granted Generals Petraeus and McChrystal earlier this year in Afghanistan were met with murmurs of opposition among liberals, but not outright public protest. Liberals didn't want to rain on their man's parade. Or distract from his ambitious domestic agenda.
A conspicuous exception was Russ Feingold, Wisconsin's senior senator and an unapologetic liberal. Feingold has questioned Afghanistan's national security value, and made no bones about his opposition to troop increases and any other sort of escalation.
Feingold's public opposition should be taken seriously. His statements mirror an undercurrent of strong leftwing opinion that has developed over, at least, the last year or so. Feingold is simply the leading edge of the coming liberal opposition to an increased American commitment to Afghanistan.
Observers in and out of Afghanistan are in general agreement that the situation there is deteriorating. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen has stated publicly that there needs to be a "sense of urgency" about Afghanistan, and that "Time is not on our side."
The Taliban is resurgent, especially in the southern city of Kandahar and the southern province of Helmand, which adjoins Kandahar province. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border remains porous, meaning that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters still transit the border.
American and NATO casualties have hit 300 this year -- a recent high. The Afghani army, numbering some 90,000 troops, is considered effective but too few in number. More troops will be needed in the coming years. Afghanistan is larger than Texas; much of the geography is rugged mountains. There is little or no infrastructure throughout the country.
The Karzai government is considered weak and has elements of corruption. There are allegations of fraud in the recent elections.
The United States and NATO forces are now conducting a major offensive to clear Taliban from Kandahar and Helmand. But for the offensive to work strategically, America and its allies need to "hold and secure" these contested regions. Clearing, holding and securing areas are fundamental to an effective counterinsurgency. That will take more troops -- more than currently pledged by the President. And much more time.
It's widely believed that General McChrystal will call for more troops after the White House studies his new war strategy. The United States wants NATO to increase its troop strength as well, though NATO member nations -- Britain and Germany, especially -- are reluctant to do so and are weighing withdrawal. The Afghanistan War is increasingly unpopular throughout Europe.
And polls indicate that support for the war is declining among Americans; no doubt in reaction to mounting casualties.
President Bush initiated military action in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 to deny it as a base of operations for Al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups. The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan at the time, wasn't the enemy per se but provided safe haven for terrorist groups. Denying Afghanistan to Al Qaeda meant defeating the Taliban.
Eight years after 9/11, the stakes are still the same in Afghanistan. At this stage, an American withdrawal from the country (which would surely precipitate a NATO withdrawal) would, in all probability, default control to the Taliban. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would again serve as a base for anti-American -- and anti-European -- terrorist groups.
Even if the Karzai government could keep control of Kabul and, perhaps, Kandahar, it would lack the resources and trained manpower to reach far-flung, often inaccessible, tribal regions, where the Taliban and some Al Qaeda elements now hold sway. Enemy strength in those regions would only grow.
Then there's Afghanistan's neighbor, nuclear-armed Pakistan. Earlier this year, the Taliban came close to threatening Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. A belated, but successful, counter-offensive by the Pakistani army turned back Taliban fighters.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda, freed from American and allied military opposition, could well use Afghanistan bases to launch attacks -- political and military -- to destabilize the shaky Pakistani government. Taliban-Al Qaeda control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal presents a nightmare for the United States, Europe, Israel, America's Arab allies and India.
A hostile Pakistan may also join the informal alliance of Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela, adding a second nuclear-capable nation to the fold. Iran could shortly be the third to acquire nuclear weapons capability.
Certainly, a Taliban-Al Qaeda controlled Pakistan would menace its neighbors -- and pose a mortal threat to Israel. Having possession of nuclear materials - and the knowledge to create even more materials and weapons -- a Taliban-Al Qaeda dominated Pakistan could, in little time, surreptitiously provide terrorist groups with the means to imperil the United States.
Will Obama Pay Any Price, Bear Any Burden?
There's no avoiding that for the United States and NATO to stabilize Afghanistan, it will take a long term commitment to being in the country. Turning the security situation around may have to occur in the next 12 to 18 months, according to Admiral Mullen's estimate, but stabilizing Afghanistan is another story.
Afghanistan is a primitive country. It lacks basic infrastructure - transportation, water, sanitation, modern communications, healthcare, any sort of manufacturing base and any close-to-modern system of distribution of essentials. Commerce is basic. Education is rudimentary or nonexistent.
It is a country of tribesmen, agrarians and nomads. It's most lucrative cash crop is poppies, from which heroin is derived.
Afghanistan's gross national product is estimated at $12.5 billion annually. The United States' 2008 current-dollar GDP was approximately $14,441.4 billion.
Afghanistan simply doesn't generate the wealth to address all that is required to advance the nation. It's estimated that it will take about $4 billion annually alone to build the Afghani army so that it can eventually "clear, hold and secure" the country.
Stabilization may well take a decade to accomplish and hundreds of billions of dollars. And expect many more American and allied casualties, provided the allies stay the course.
Why Obama and left-leaning Democrats will blink
If stabilizing Afghanistan is the goal, then most of the burden in blood and treasure will fall on the United States. As projected, Afghanistan would be a heavy lift even for war presidents like George W. Bush, FDR and Lincoln. For Barack Obama a man of the left, and liberal Democrats who have had no stomach for tough fights, much less long term overseas military commitments, Afghanistan will prove a commitment too great.
The factors that will go into the President losing Afghanistan are many and varied, but here are some critical ones:
An increase of troops beyond current levels will be required to successfully implement General McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy. A more aggressive posture aimed at securing strategic areas of the country inevitably will result in correspondingly higher American casualties. Americans, already souring on the war, will sour even more. Liberals, poll-sensitive and voter base driven, will become more vocal in calls to exit Afghanistan, and may well legislate to do so.
When it comes to a choice between guns or butter, liberals invariably choose butter. Though stalled, the President and liberals are still committed to an aggressive domestic agenda. A stepped up war in Afghanistan will detract from their efforts to accomplish anything domestically. Social engineering and expansion of government is where Mr. Obama wishes to make his mark. He's Clement Attlee, not Winston Churchill.
In short order, the President and Congressional Democratic majorities have debauched government finances with an orgy of borrowing and spending. Cranking up government printing presses have ensured that significant inflation is in the offing. The recession may prove to be a W rather than a V-- meaning a double-dip recession. Though the price tag for stabilizing Afghanistan might be paltry when compared to the trillions of dollars of debt that the President and Democrats are incurring, Americans will viscerally resent greater expenditures overseas, Afghanistan included. An ailing economy will simply exacerbate that resentment. Expect voter backlash.
The left is philosophically and temperamentally opposed to projections of American military power. Don't forget that Mr. Obama and left-leaning Democrats loudly decried the surge in Iraq and openly ridiculed its architect, General David Petraeus. When it succeeded, they simply went silent. The President's initial forays into foreign affairs have been about apologizing to countries for alleged American faults. Or attempting to placate Iran. Or bullying allies like Israel and Honduras into accepting positions that are contrary to their national interests. Or cozying up to thugs like Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers.
Mr. Obama has potentially set himself up for a situation unlike any other modern American president. The federal government is greatly overextended financially. A bad economy may get worse. The President's credibility has diminished and is diminishing. Rogue nations North Korea and Iran pose either immediate or midterm dangers. Though successfully kept from our shores since 9/11, terrorism still poses a real threat to the nation. Failure in Iraq or Afghanistan or both would embolden America's enemies.
The way is fraught with peril. Since Vietnam, Democrats have failed as a war party. Given the dynamics on the left, and in the Democratic Party, the Afghanistan war could devolve into an unseemly demonstration of cut and run or become a quagmire. A quagmire because the President may attempt to accommodate the left and placate a hostile public while attempting to meet national security requirements. Wars aren't won by splitting differences.
Some on the right have begun floating other strategies involving "light footprint" anti-terror campaigns in Afghanistan. Ralph Peters and George Will are most notable. Yet there is no hint that the President is considering any alternative to a resource/manpower-heavy, time-intensive counterinsurgency.
The President and Democrats have finally gotten the war they wanted, the one they claimed America should be fighting. It may likely be a pox on their house. Let's hope it's not a pox on America's house too.