The debate rages among experts on whether to escalate the escalation of Barack Obama’s “war of necessity” in Afghanistan—seemingly oblivious to American public opinion at home that has turned against waging the conflict at all. During even the best of times, Washington can be isolated from the rest of the country and world. Now the imperial city—and most of the politicians, both Democrat and Republican, who run it—seems to be reenacting an episode of the incomprehensible television series Lost.
In the old American republic, politicians would have considered it suicidal to escalate a war in opposition to public desires. Even during Vietnam, when Lyndon B. Johnson conducted his massive escalation, the war was not yet unpopular. Even facing the stiff wind of popular opposition and very little chance of winning (whatever that means) the Afghan War, U.S. generals are likely to ask for, and be granted, more troops than the 21,000 troops already added.
An example of the depth of the delusion in the Obama administration is the known concern about the second escalation by Robert Gates, Obama’s defense secretary and one of the most astute members of his rather poor foreign policy team. Gates has worried, a bit surreally, that if even more U.S. troops are added to the 68,000 that will already be there, they could be seen as an “occupation force.” Apparently, even Gates has not processed the loud and repeated protests of the Afghan people and government about civilians killed by U.S. air strikes. Newsflash: The U.S. is already seen as a foreign occupier and puppeteer behind the corrupt and now fraudulent Afghan government of Hamid Karzai. Many experts say the U.S. lost the Vietnam War because the corrupt U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government lost popular legitimacy. The U.S. may now be in a similar pickle in Afghanistan.
Today, Washington’s hallucinations rival those during the Bay of Pigs fiasco—when U.S.-backed Cuban exiles were allowed to fend for themselves on the beach during their failed invasion, because President John F. Kennedy denied them the use of their own and U.S. air cover in order to keep U.S. involvement a secret. No matter that everyone in the hemisphere already knew the U.S. was training the invasion force in Central America, because the New York Times had done several stories on it.
Not only is the U.S. occupation force in Afghanistan incensing Afghans, it is fueling the resurgence of the Taliban there and aggravating the rise of Islamist militancy in nuclear-armed Pakistan. In both cases, the perceived meddling of “infidels” on Muslim soil is stoking resistance.
With the guerrillas’ knowledge that the conflict’s center of gravity—popular opinion in the invading country—has been likely irretrievably lost to Obama, as well as their advantages in terrain, zealotry, and an Afghan population that does regard American presence as an occupation, they will likely outlast American will to fight.
One would think that Obama would have no other choice but to scale back his military efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to something more manageable, but which would also be less counterproductive in the fight against al-Qaeda. But his “experts” have convinced him that those nations will again become havens for al-Qaeda attacks against the United States.
The problem with this flawed logic is that almost any “failed state” in the world—such as Somalia or Sudan—would need to be rebuilt in similar fashion or it could become a haven for al-Qaeda. Such a policy would further overstretch an already overextended U.S. military and inflame Islamist militants everywhere.
Instead, the U.S. could use law enforcement, intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, and maybe an occasional Special Forces raid to neutralize al Qaeda, as well as pay off local chieftains to provide intelligence on al-Qaeda or prevent them from providing a haven for its operatives. The United States has successfully used such techniques to keep al-Qaeda at bay since 9/11. Osama bin Laden is likely to be in Pakistan, not Afghanistan; and the Taliban is not al-Qaeda, the real adversary to be neutralized. Unfortunately, the United States has gone beyond these “light footprint” tactics and has gotten away from this main objective and into futile nation-building and drug interdiction/eradication.
The Obama administration, seemingly more analytical and pragmatic in foreign policy than the ideological Bush administration, may eventually realize that the stark realities call for a scaled-back and less counterproductive approach to fighting terror. But by then, it will be Obama’s war, and the Republicans will then bait him into staying longer by beginning to ask, “Who lost Afghanistan?”—much as they tagged Harry Truman with having lost China.
Of course, on his first day in office, if Obama had been really astute, he would have declared that both Afghanistan and Iraq were Bush’s unnecessary wars and called for rapid U.S. troop withdrawals. He didn’t make that wise move, but there is still time to do an about-face before further escalating a lost cause, which is counterproductive to his stated goal of neutralizing al-Qaeda.
This article first appeared in The Independent Instituteand is republished with permission.