The British Independent‘s report Friday that new President Obama may be about to cut Afghan president Karzai adrift ought to be enough to make any informed observer physically ill – not because Karzai has been any great shakes as a leader (rampant corruption, plus a brother up to his neck in the Afghan narco-trade), but because it provides evidence of yet one more piece of a huge train-wreck – or maybe a perfect storm – that is slowly but surely approaching. And it has the potential to make the debacle in Iraq pale in comparison.
- Obama and Petraeus are putting together what looks to be, for all intents and purposes, a new “Surge” – but they’re moving ahead with a US military exhausted and overstretched by almost six years of war and occupation in Iraq and even more time in Afghanistan; a US Treasury likewise exhausted and overstretched by the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan, and other of Mr. Bush’s follies; and an American public exhausted by war and recession, and in no mood to see a “surge” of American men and women sent home dead or maimed.
- They will be sending those troops into a battlefield significantly larger than the one in Iraq, with much more difficult terrain and a population arguably much more divided by ethnic differences and tribal affiliations.
- Much of that population is already enraged by years of the US military inflicting collateral damage on mostly innocent villagers (including wedding parties) – or, sometimes, Afghan forces or police – via Stealth bombers, Hellfire missiles fired from Predator drones, or US ground forces. Moreover, much of that population depends on profits from opium cultivation to be able to support itself; they now face the prospect of a US troop surge disrupting that, both by making their fields into a war zone or by disrupting commercial activity that the narco-trade itself entails. Perhaps in time these villagers will be willing to be weaned off opium growing and onto other cultivation – let’s hope so – but in the foreseeable future, that’s not too likely. Bottom line: more reason to be enraged by a US troop presence.
- The US military are already helping to organize and arm local tribal militias and enlist them in the fight against the Taliban – evidently trying to re-use the template of the Sunni Awakening model in Iraq, which indeed was at least partly responsible for any of the “success” commonly (but, in the eyes of many experts, inappropriately) attributed to the “Surge” in Iraq. But in Iraq, the central government in the capital was beginning to take shape and reassert itself around the same time. That prospect is much more problematic in Afghanistan. (More on that in a bit.) The potentially much more worrisome problem is that by arming these militias, the US is buying trouble down the line, in the shape of civil war among local tribal and ethnic factions, of the kind that devastated Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and eventually led to the rise of the Taliban. Even if US forces can somehow achieve “victory” against the Taliban, will they be expected to then disarm and control these militias?
- The Taliban forces that the US “Surge” is intended to defeat have a handy option that the “insurgents” in Iraq didn’t have – or at least, not to the same degree: the option of escape to, refuge in, resupply in, and even reinforcement (in the form of well-organized ethnic Pashtun compatriots) from the territory of a neighboring, sovereign state – Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan is supposedly an ally of the US against the Taliban; and, yes, the new political leadership under Mr. Zardari is essentially turning the other way when the US sends airstrikes and special ground missions into Pakistani territory; and, yes, the leadership has sent Pakistani forces to take on the Taliban and allied forces in the Northwest Tribal Territories. But those forces have had limited success and have taken some heavy losses. The winked-at air-strikes are not being ignored by the wider Pakistani public, who are not pleased to see their country’s sovereignty violated with such impunity. And Mr. Zardari’s government has yet to assert its writ over its own intelligence service, the ISI, which has long nurtured the Taliban in Afghanistan as an asset and ally against Pakistan’s traditional enemy and existential threat, India.
Into this mess, Messrs. Obama and Petraeus now propose to commit as many as 30,000 more US troops. (Indeed, the AP reports that Marine Corps Commandant James Conway is itching to have the 22,000 Marines now in Iraq dispatched to Afghanistan). But what of the Afghan government for which they’ll be fighting? Here’s where things get even scarier, if we accept as more or less on-target the roster of potential new leaders that, according to the Independent, Obama has been meeting with:
- Gul Agha Sherzai: A veteran of the wars against the Soviets, Mr Sherzai (whose name means “son of a lion”) is a former governor of Kandahar criticised for human rights abuses. He escaped assassination in 2006.
- Dr Abdullah Abdullah: Although half Pashtun, he is considered a leader of Afghanistan’s Tajik population. He was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2001 and served until 2006.
- Ali Ahmad Jalali: An ethnic Pashtun and former colonel, Jalali joined the anti-Soviet resistance after the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. He took US citizenship and spent 20 years broadcasting for Voice of America.
- Dr Ashraf Ghani: An ethnic Pashtun, he studied in America, at Columbia University. He worked at the World Bank from 1991 to 2001, when he returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 24 years. From 2002-04 he was Finance Minister and oversaw the successful transition to Afghanistan’s new currency.
So, let’s get this straight. The US may be planning to maneuver Hamid Karzai out of his presidency and then replace him with a) a former governor charged with human-rights abuses, b) a man whose chief ethnic loyalty may well leave him outside the willing embrace of the country’s majority ethnic group, c) a US citizen who worked for what some might regard as the US’s chief propaganda agency, or d) a man who was out of the country for 24 years?
Has Obama not heard of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile whom Dick Cheney et al expected to ride in with US troops and be installed as Iraq’s new strongman? Have his advisers not reminded him of the suspicion and distrust that men like Ayad Allawi, Ibrahim al-Jafari, Nuri al-Maliki, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, all of them long-time expatriates, faced when they too returned to Iraq after long exile, their returns made possible by the force of US arms? Is this the kind of political solution for which Messrs. Obama and Petraeus would now have US soldiers lay their lives on the line?
Especially frightening, though, is that so much of this has been slipping under the American public’s radar. The Iraq war is being proclaimed as won, or at least so much under control that we needn’t pay it much more attention. Israel’s devastation of Gaza grabbed weeks of headlines; Afghanistan could be pushed to the side. On the home front, the US is mired in a recession, people are losing their livelihoods or are distracted by the hits taken by their 401k’s. Still, we are basking in Obamamania, luxuriating in the glow of a new First Family in the White House, heartened by his every act, even rejoicing in his defiant stand to keep his cherished Blackberry. Afghanistan is so very far away. But dark clouds have converged there, from many fronts, and our shining new captain may be navigating us into a perfect storm from which we may not be able to escape.
John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.