Monday, March 30, 2009

Obama's Vietnam

Well to be very optimistic: This Afghanistan thing is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. And Obama's new strategy isn't going to be helping--at least, if the strategy is what he outlined.

First, a recap of recent trends. Remember that peace deal signed with the Swat valley Taliban? Well, as much as Swat is quiet (except for Taliban now running around lashing anyone that doesn't follow Allah's will), the deal is turning out to be pretty sour. First, it sets a terrible precedent: make life hard enough on the Government, kill enough people, terrorize hard enough, and the government will cave. Now, I know that there are people that attribute this problem to any peace deal, anywhere. But a peace deal must, if one side is giving more than peace, include a promise of more than peace from the other side. The Taliban are free to move (and regroup, rearm, train, propagandize, and prepare in other ways) about all they want in Swat. In 2 short years, they were able to get Pakistan to "surrender" the area to direct Taliban rule. Why stop here? Without pressure from the state, the Taliban can grow more powerful. What if they want more next year? They have no incentive to follow the peace deal (why, just because they said they would?) Now there is a Sharia mini-state in Pakistan, at the heart of all the militants running around making trouble. Frankly, it's a complete disaster. And it's a terrible model for future Taliban negotiations.

The second major problem is that while there has been a lull in Swat, there has been an increase of activity elsewhere (and I dare you to tell me that they're not getting all sorts of support from Swat). Pakistan was probably hoping such appeasement would get other Taliban to calm down. Quite to the contrary! Once Taliban militants saw that sufficient mayhem would get one group what it wanted, it seems they have all put their chips down. The government cannot credibly tell these groups, "we will not make concessions." So they're going to try to milk the government for all it's worth. After killing 50 worshipers at a Mosque in Peshawar, Taliban abducted 12 police officers yesterday. In Lahore, Taliban killed 8 police cadets and wounded 50 in a raid on a police academy earlier today. The Taliban is trying to break the shoddy police and paramilitary services of Pakistan by making sure that citizens are too terrified to sign up. And they're doing a pretty good job. Pakistan has its tail between its legs.

Enter President Obama, with a brilliant new strategy for Afghanistan! Obama wants to "sharpen the focus" of the war, by concentrating military might on al-Qaeda, rather than the Taliban. This is based on the premise that the Taliban are generally this very large group of nationalists/religious nuts that really hate that the West is there, that happens to include a lunatic fringe (rather than, itself, being a small lunatic fringe). The premise is correct. The strategy stemming from this premise is absolutely absurd, for a number of reasons.

First, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not very independent in the region. The Taliban leadership supports al-Qaeda. They always have. If we go smash up al-Qaeda members with some precision strikes, give the Taliban the thumbs up to take over the region, and then go home, what makes us think that al-Qaeda is not going to come back? Will the Taliban seriously devote any resources at all to rooting out and squelching an ideologically friendly organization that happens to love killing Westerners even more than the Taliban does? And furthermore, the Taliban is blowing us up not because we're shooting them, but because we're there at all. Obama wants to increase US troops by 150%, but not fight the Taliban! The Taliban won't stop attacking US troops simply because we promise we're only going after al-Qaeda. The concept is somewhat boggling.

There has been some hand-waving about negotiating with the Taliban, but we have no idea how to do that. They certainly don't want to negotiate with us--we're foreign infidels. And Karzai is a Western puppet. Even many of the MPs in his government think he's going to steal the next election. And, currently, we have no bargaining power with the Taliban. They're growing in size, influence, power. They're acting with impunity. Why would they negotiate when they could conquer? As far as I've learned, negotiations work well at a "hurting stalemate--" when both sides are stuck, grinding, bleeding, and not getting anywhere. This isn't the case. The Taliban are only going to negotiate in an acceptable way if they're hurting, too.

The Taliban should indeed have a political voice in the Afghani government, there's no doubt--but negotiations have to center on giving them political power in exchange for laying down their arms and/or joining government forces--just like with the Sunni extremists in Iraq (that became the famed Sons of Iraq / Sunni Reawakening). But it requires putting the hurt on. In Iraq, the Shiites and Sunnis were putting the hurt on each other. Right now, nobody's making the Taliban's life difficult, and they're starting to see evidence that they can take over.

But Obama's hand-wavings about negotiations may largely sum up to letting them take over Afghanistan, which I sincerely hope is not the case. The Taliban is, deep down, a religious extremist organization that hosted al-Qaeda and promoted anti-Western terrorism long before the US was anywhere near Afghanistan. Putting them in charge again won't make US future prospects terribly peachy.

The parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are much stronger than those between Vietnam and Iraq, at least tactically. In Afghanistan, we see the same united, organized ideological insurgency that is based in a region we're not, but is relatively ubiquitous among the population. It's casualty-accepting, highly nationalist, and extraordinarily pissed. It's using sovereignty to its advantage, swimming through porous borders that the US cannot follow. President Obama no doubt sees these parallels. But he's drawing the wrong lessons--Obama's plan looks fatalistic: he is looking for a victory by making the victory standards absurdly low. But there is a big difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan--in Vietnam, leaving Communists in charge did precious little to the US but embarrass it. In Afghanistan, we are considering putting in charge an organization that is trying to take over Pakistan, and that has already shown full willingness to support organizations that would attack us on our own soil. And I think leaving them in charge will leave us more vulnerable than before we went in.
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