Afghanistan: A War Obama Can Call His Own

Ilana Mercer, July 18, 2008

Holding out hope for that elusive humble foreign policy is proving futile. Barack Obama had promised originally to exit Iraq within 16 months of taking office. Now he is wobbling about that war, and has indicated he might “refine” his policy. Or, rather, renege on his campaign commitments.

Obama’s liberal acolytes—and some libertarians still hankering after that humble foreign policy—will soon discover that the troops he withdraws from Iraq will not be heading home; 9000 soldiers will be packed off to Afghanistan to join the 36,000 American fighting in that theater.

You see, Obama wants to maintain a meaty presence in Afghanistan. He may even be conjuring up new monsters and new missions. This is because Obama needs a “good” war. Electability in fin de siècle America hinges on projecting strength around the world—an American leader has to aspire to protect borders and people not his own. In other words, Obama needs a war he can call his own.

In Afghanistan, Obama has found such a war.

By promising to broaden the scope of operations in Afghanistan, Obama has found a “good” war to make him look the part. By staking out Afghanistan as his preferred theater of war—and pledging an uptick in operations against the Taliban—Obama achieves two things: He can cleave to the Iraq policy that excited his base. While winding down one war, he can ratchet up another, thereby demonstrating his commander-in-chief credentials.

The polls tell Obama that Americans want out of Iraq. And more Americans want to leave immediately than want to stay to “stabilize” the situation. Americans have learned this much from Iraq: Democracy has not sprung Athena-like from her father’s head. Surge, smurge; this form of government will not take hold in Iraq, not in our lifetime. And no matter how long we linger. Although they are hardly enthusiastic about the prospects of an interminable conflict there, voters are more ambivalent about Afghanistan.

If a presidential hopeful needed to buttress his commander in chief bona fides, as Obama apparently does, Afghanistan would be the place to do it. The initial mission in Afghanistan was, after all, a just one. Going after al-Qaida in Afghanistan at the time was the right thing to do and was a legitimate act of retaliation and defense accommodated within Just War teachings. Al-Qaida was responsible for the murder of 3,000 Americans. The Taliban succored al-Qaida and its leader bin Laden. The President had told the hosting Taliban to surrender bin Laden and his gang. The Taliban refused. America invaded. So far so good.

But that initial mission mutated miraculously, and now we are doing in Afghanistan what we’re doing in Iraq: nation building. Nations building is Democrat for spreading democracy. Spreading democracy is Republican for nation building. These interchangeable concepts stand for an open-ended military presence with all the pitfalls that attach to Iraq.

Americans are currently training the Afghan army. As in Iraq, it’ll take years if not decades before the training wheels can be removed. The men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions have made magnificent progress in pushing the Taliban back. But the gains are short-lived. The Taliban invariably regroup. Their stake in that country is simply greater than ours. Always will be. Then there are the costs and the casualties. When Special Forces target the Taliban, they frequently infringe on tribal territory instead. Civilians die. Tribal elders are enraged, and rightly so.

Nation building in that country also entails policing a corruption-riddled police force. Afghani officers of the law are “uniformed thieves.” They run the opium trade by which the impoverished Afghani farmers survive. Somewhere on the food chain sit the drug traffickers. We mediate between them and other crime bosses, or war lords, as they are known. When we supply impoverished farmers with basic supplies, the Taliban first fleece these long-suffering folks and then punish them for collaborating with the Americans. By swooping down to save the locals from the Taliban we cripple them with kindness and deepen their dependency.

Another of the contradictions of occupation: The Pashtun population we patronize happens to disdain the central government we hope to strengthen. So it goes: We help local groups we believe to be patriotic, at the same time, end up establishing an authoritarian protectorate. Pakistan anyone?

So, as Obama sets forth strategically to ingratiate the conflict in Afghanistan on his constituents—all in order to flaunt his fitness for the office—remember: This war too must end.

July 18

*Screen pic courtesy here.

CATEGORIES: Anti-War, Barack Obama, Elections 2008, Foreign Policy, Iraq, War