With the usual fanfare, the Obama administration has proclaimed a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. On the surface, it does not amount to much. But if a story by Bill Gertz in the March 26 Washington Times is correct, there is more to it than meets the eye. Gertz reported:
"The Obama administration has conducted a vigorous internal debate over its new strategy for Afghanistan….
"According to two U.S. government sources close to the issue, senior policymakers were divided over how comprehensive to make the strategy….
"On the one side were Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, who argued in closed-door meetings for a minimal strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan….
"The goal of these advocates was to limit civilian and other nonmilitary efforts in Afghanistan and focus on a main military objective of denying safe haven to the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists.
"The other side of the debate was led by Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy for the region, who along with U.S. Central Command leader Gen. David H. Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fought for a major nation-building effort.
"The Holbrooke-Petraeus-Clinton faction, according to the sources, prevailed. The result is expected to be a major, long-term military and civilian program to reinvent Afghanistan from one of the most backward, least developed nations to a relatively prosperous democratic state."
I have not seen similar stories in other papers, so it is possible Gertz is not correct. But if he is, the Obama administration has just made the Afghan war its own, and lost it.
Ironically, the reported decision duplicates the Bush administration’s error in Iraq, another lost war (the next phase in Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’ite civil war is now ramping up). The error, one that no tactical or operational successes can overcome, is setting unattainable strategic objectives.
Short of divine intervention, nothing can turn Afghanistan into a modern, prosperous, democratic state. Pigs will not only fly, they will win dogfights with F-15s before that happens. The most Afghanistan can ever be is Afghanistan: a poor, backward country, one where the state is weak and local warlords are strong, plagued with a drug-based economy and endemic low-level civil war. That is Afghanistan at its best. Just achieving that would be difficult for an occupying foreign power, whose presence assures that war will not be low-level and that no settlement will be long-term.
In fact, even the minimalist objectives reportedly urged by Vice President Biden are not attainable. We cannot deny safe haven in Afghanistan for the Taliban, because the Taliban are Afghans. They represent a substantial portion of the Pashtun population. The most we can hope to obtain in a settlement of the Afghan war is the exclusion of al-Qaeda. That is a realistic strategic objective, because al-Qaeda is made up of Arabs, i.e., foreigners, whom the Afghans dislike the same way they dislike other foreigners. The Taliban’s commitment to al-Qaeda is ideological, and the right combination of incentives can usually break ideological commitments.
Instead of a pragmatic, realistic approach to attaining that limited objective, it seems we are committed to a quixotic quest for the unattainable. Again, that guarantees we will lose the Afghan war. No means, military or non-military, can obtain the unattainable. The circle cannot be squared.
Here we see how little "change" the Obama administration really represents. The differences between the neo-liberals and the neocons are few. Both are militant believers in Brave New World, a globalist future in which everyone on earth becomes modern. In the view of these ideologues, the fact that billions of people are willing to fight to the death against modernity is, like the river Pregel, an unimportant military obstacle. We just need to buy more Predators.
Meanwhile, the money is running out. The ancien regime syndrome looms ever larger: we not only maintain but increase foolish foreign commitments, at the same time that debt is piling up, those willing to lend become fewer, and we are reduced to debasing the currency. Historians have seen it all before, many, many times. It never has a happy ending.
It appears Afghanistan will be the graveyard of yet another empire.