Humpty Dumpty at the Kyber Pass
At the outset, it is worth mentioning that as I watched President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan tonight I realized that the luxury of not being governed by an idiot has yet to wear off. Obviously, the entire Iraq War has been a complete distraction from the efficient prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. On somewhat of an aside, I also appreciated Obama’s reference to Eishenhower’s principle that every issue of national policy must be placed in balance with every other issue. I thought his short-list of our present challenges as (1) the economy and (2) China, showed the proper focus, or at least one with which I agree.
Now with respect to Afghanistan, I see 2 challenges.
The first is the definition of success. In this speech Obama defined success as destroying Al Qaeda’s ability to act. He did not include in the definition of success building a vibrant and successful Afghanistan. That was wise. Although I am only half-way through Ahmed Rashid’s excellent book on the Taliban (Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia), I can already appreciate just how far behind Afghanistan is in terms of thinking of itself as a single nation and possessing national institutions that command the loyalty and support of the civilian population. The problem is whether you can quench Al Qaeda’s ability to operate and avoid having to suckle a fledgling Afghanistan. Didn’t Al Qaeda select Afghanistan precisely because it was unable to hold itself together? (By the way, there is no shortage of failed states, which has always led me to wonder why we define the theatres in the “War on Terror” with such a geographical emphasis). I agree no nation can afford to bankroll Afghanistan, especially the United States in its current condition. But the ability of Afghanistan to have a concept of itself as a multi-ethnic nation and rise up from the ashes of ethnic and tribal violence does not at this point look promising. There will have to be some nation-building, the question is how much time and how much money will it take to get to a critical mass that can effectively police disrupting influences like Al Qaeda.
The second issue is Pakistan. An Al Qaeda or Taliban leader watching tonight’s broadcast will probably go through the following considerations if he hasn’t done so already. An enlarged American force is on its way. The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to avoid all confrontations with a superior force and to instead wear that force down by hit and run tactics, draw it into situations where its size becomes a disadvantage and target its weaknesses. In his speech tonight Obama said that he would start pulling troops back from Afghanistan in 18 months. This weekend I briefly caught an interview with Reza Aslan who has written the book, How to Win A Cosmic War, God, Civilization and the The End of The War on Terror. He captures quite well the perspective that Islamist fundamentalists have of this conflict as one which they don’t see ending any time soon. So for them, it is a viable option to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, probably to Waziristan in Pakistan, wait there for 18 months and return once the Americans start to leave. The question then becomes whether Pakistan will attack them in Waziristan. Pakistan is an anemic state. Since partition it has failed to build up the type of democratic institutions that might have at this point afforded it greater economic growth, reduced poverty and inequality, rule of law, a military under civilian control and reduced corruption. It has none of these things so it has little ability to act. Pakistan is also disinclined to act because their number one priority is to counter their heightened sensitivity to Indian influence in Afghanistan. Given the precarious position in which Pakistan finds itself (specifically the the high water mark of concern re the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons during the Swat Valley insurgency) this obsession with India seems to me a poor choice of priorities. But Pakistan believes that the Americans are not in Afghanistan for the long haul. And they are right. So Pakistan sees the relationship between its security services and the Taliban as a potential pawn that they can use in a post-American Afghanistan to counter Indian influence in the region. If Pakistan does not prosecute the war on their side of the border Al Qaeda will not be neutralized in Afghanistan. They will merely move to Pakistan and lie low. Pakistan is key. And the key to Pakistan is India.