Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Afghanistan: Are You Ready For Your Close-Up?


The drumbeat of war emanating from Washington is not the deafening booms of a thousand timpani which led President Bush to invade Iraq, but the likelihood of expanding the war in Afghanistan sounds a bit like a smooth jazz rhythm--cool and barely nuanced--a bit like the new president.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified to the Senate Armed Service Committee today the need for 17,000 more troops in Afghanistan within the next few months. On Friday, reports surfaced that President Obama ordered military drones to bomb Taliban extremists in the Northwestern Pakistan which killed 22. Also, Gates reiterated the Status of Force Agreement signed by the U.S. and Iraq in June, will leave Iraq bare of American troops by 2011.

The Obama administration's call for an expansion of involvement in Afghanistan comes as no surprise, despite calling the war in Iraq the wrong war. Throughout Obama's presidential campaign he was the only candidate who focused on Pakistan--Afghanistan's neighbor to the South and enabler of the Taliban in the Waziristan region. Americans may have inadvertently bundled both conflicts into one and find the decision to send more troops to the regions a bit contradictory. But, isn't this what liberals have always said about Bush's follies in the Middle East: the war in Afghanistan was justified, the war in Iraq was not. But, the situation today is vastly different than 2002.

Noted Middle East expert Juan Cole says a returning focus to Afghanistan could make it "Obama's Vietnam," meaning "Obama may be falling into the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam trap, of escalating a predecessor's halfhearted war into a major quagmire." Cole sees the recent attack on Pakistan without prior interaction with the government as a "bad sign."

It is not clear if Obama really believes that the fractious tribes of the Pakistani northwest can be subdued with some airstrikes and if he really believes that U.S. security depends on what happens in Waziristan. If he thinks the drone attacks on FATA are a painless way to signal to the world that he is no wimp, he may find, as Lyndon Johnson did, that such military operations take on a momentum of their own, and produce popular discontents that can prove deadly to the military mission.

Matthew Yglesias writing in The American Prospect agrees with this assumption and says we also need to retire the term "war on terror" lest it continues to hamper the fight in Afghanistan and the entire region. Much of the conflict in Afghanistan is intertwined with Pakistan. As William Dalrymple writes in a New York Review of Books article on author Ahmed Rashid's new book, Descent into Chaos, the Pakistani intelligence apparatus has a history of encouraging the Taliban in Afghanistan as a friendly bulwark against India and no longer encourages its own self-interests.

It is for this reason that many in the army still believe that the jihadis make up a more practical defense against Indian dominance than even nuclear weapons. For them, supporting a range of jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir is not an ideological or religious whim so much as a practical and patriotic imperative—a vital survival strategy for a Pakistani state that they perceive to be threatened by India's ever-growing power and its alliance with the hostile Karzai regime in Kabul.

The Obama administration seems bent on resolving Afghanistan through Pakistan. This could take years, though. With the swift change in course comes apprehension for Americans weary of seven years of conflict comes questions. Will Afghanistan threaten to gobble up the next four years like Iraq destroyed the Bush presidency? Iran also cannot be forgotten in this equation. With Afghani elections later this summer, Iran may be need to barter a positive post-Karzai era.

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