Can Obama Win in Afghanistan?
By Nayyer Ali, MD
Last fall Obama committed to a "surge" of American troops into Af ghanistan, with the plan of stabilizing the country over the next 18 months. Obama plans on beginning a withdrawal of the military in the summer of 2011, although he has retained ambiguity on how long it would take to fully remove the United States.
Is this realistic? What will “Victory” in Afghanistan is a moving target. Eight years ago, victory would have been a peaceful Afghanistan with a fully defeated Taliban, a strong central government, no opium production, and a real democracy with a firmly pro-American government, and perhaps permanent US military bases in the country from which to menace Iran. But that vision is now in tatters. Karzai is not a democrat, and blatantly stole his re-election last summer. The Afghan central government is weak, corrupt, and ineffective. And the Taliban, far from being defeated, have become a powerful insurgency operating in much of the Pashtun south of the country.
Meanwhile, Pakistani Taliban have wreaked havoc within Pakistan, and have provided refuge and support for Afghan Taliban.
Obama can still “win”, but his sights must be set much lower. The fundamental American interest in Afghanistan, and the reason for the US invasion in the first place, was to destroy the base from which Al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks. America’s primary aim remains denying Al-Qaeda the chance to plan, train, and organize with impunity with access to the resources and legitimacy of a
nation, which is what they had before 9/11 in Afghanistan. By now, much of Al-Qaeda has been killed, captured, or dispersed, although Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri still remain untouched somewhere in that region.
In some very significant ways there have been major positive developments in Afghanistan over the last 8 years. 5 million refugees have returned home, which is 20% of the country's population. In 2000, only 1 million Afghan children, all boys, attended school. Now 7 million kids are in school, and a third of them are girls. There has been significant improvements in terms of vaccinations and public health, and Afghanistan has reestablished many aspects of a real country.
Kabul has a working airport, there are universities that are now open, cell phones are in the hands of almost half the population, there is a vibrant press that includes radio and television, and there are banks in country that had no banks whatsoever in 2000.
The country has seen a revival of agriculture and is not dependent on the World Food Program to avoid starvation. And though the war is not over, the amount of bloodshed is far less. 2000 civilians died in fighting last year, which is a rather small toll, compared to the 1980's and 1990's when over a million Afghans died.
Obama will accept a messy but slowly improving Afghanistan as victory, and will begin the pullout of US forces in summer 2011. But unlike Iraq, where he will take out the military completely, I anticipate that he will leave behind a small but highly potent mobile contingent, perhaps two brigades with airpower and helicopter transport. They will maintain a strike force that will be used to attack any locus of Al-Qaeda that tries to develop on Afghan soil. It will also allow the US to destroy any attempt by the Taliban to put together a large concentrated force. The Taliban will persist as a rural insurgency, with roots in the Pashtun countryside, but with no capacity to actually overrun towns and hold territory. Any attempt to do so will be easily crushed by US and Afghan army counterattacks. Over another decade, the Afghan state and army will gradually grow stronger and finally defeat the Taliban, who might just give up out of sheer exhaustion.
When the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, the conventional wisdom was that the Mujahideen would make quick work of the remaining Afghan puppet government. But it turned out not to be case. The Afghan government easily held on till 1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed and it lost its outside support and source of military supplies. What this shows is that the Taliban have no chance of knocking off the Karzai government while it retains the backing and support of the US. Obama can safely pull out without risking a Taliban takeover.
In the long run, what Afghanistan needs, besides clean and effective government, is a return to a decentralized state.
Currently, Karzai has too much power, as he appoints all the regional governors. To really take the steam out of the Taliban, the local Pashtuns must feel they have real ownership of their local governments. The governors should be elected, and not appointed.
More democracy would be a helpful step in Afghanistan, and would help create an Afghanistan in which Obama could credibly claim “victory”.