Barack Obama's greatest problem might just turn out to be George w. Bush's second term in office.
In his last four years, Bush ran pretty much on auto-pilot, not doing much beyond fending off his critics while letting his south Asian wars slowly degrade. Bush was so swept up in his Iraq fiasco and so distracted from the Afghan War that he permitted, even unwittingly empowered the destabilization of neighbouring Pakistan. Incurious George massively grew the war he would bequeath to his successor.
Here's something to mull over. These dire warnings and alarms coming today from General Stanley McChrystal truly beg the question of why his predecessors, including the supposedly great Petraeus, weren't raising these warnings four years ago when the AfPak dilemma wasn't so intractable, when there might still have been time to straighten out the central government in Kabul? Why did Petraeus and his underlings stand mute? Were they intimidated by Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney? Were they more interested in their careers than in speaking truth to power?
Why did Canadian generals follow the same path in Kandahar? Why weren't they standing up for their troops to denounce this incompetently waged war? Why have they let Ottawa use their soldiers as political footballs?
The bravest, best trained, best equipped and most highly motivated soldiers cannot overcome weak military and bad political leadership. Maybe, just maybe, Barack Obama can make good America's political leadership deficit from the Bush days but can even a great general overcome the enormous damage caused by eight years of hapless military leadership in Afghanistan?
I don't believe they can and here's why. As McChrystal's report points out, the West isn't just fighting a Taliban insurgency any longer. It's morphed into something quite different with the addition of Haqqani's and Hekmatyar's militias and their ranks may soon be swollen further by dissident nationalists infuriated by Karzai's fraudulent election win. As I've said for some time, I think what was a simple insurgency when Bush was sworn in again in 2005 has now evolved into a genuine civil war. This isn't about terrorism any more, it's about nationalism now and which of two sides will be strong enough to rule Afghanistan.
Humpty Dumpty - make that Hamid Dumpty - has fallen off the wall and all of our horses and all of our men can't put that bugger back together again and we know it. Since we know that legitimizing the Karzai government is a lost cause, can't be done, won't be done, how much sense is there in continuing a losing battle to prop him up? We can always toss him but then who do we find to take over? Dostum, Fahim, Gul Agha - they're worse than Karzai! Abdullah Abdullah? Maybe but then you add Dostum, Fahim and the others to the enemies column.
This is what happens when you allow a warlord state to evolve. In Afghanistan a warlord's loyalty depends on which way the wind is blowing on any given day. History has shown that it won't take much to swing "our" warlords over to the other side. An ominous sign is how miserably we've failed in winning back Taliban allies like Hekmatyar. Evil as the old bastard is, we have tried and so has Karzai. Old Hek is with his historic enemies, the Taliban, for a reason. He's taken a look at the cards on the table and he doesn't see that we're holding any winning hand.
Unfortunately for Obama, leaving Afghanistan is the hard option, simply staying is much easier. If you think a great many Americans are too dumb to grasp the healthcare issue, ask how many don't understand the difference between a military war and a political war? Reagan restored in these people the myth of American military invincibility. Bush Sr. put it on display in Desert Storm and his halfwit son sort of did the same when he toppled Saddam. The real lesson is that America can positively triumph in quick wars but its qualitative edge degrades rapidly in long wars. That's because quick wars are almost always military wars but protracted wars evolve into political wars in which firepower supremacy is often rendered irrelevant or even counterproductive.
In the wake of the Vietnam War the American people were utterly traumatized by the outcome. How could their America lose that war when it won every battle, when it was never defeated in the field? With that, of course, they launched into a witch hunt to identify scapegoats and, of course, settled on those who had criticized the war. To hear them talk back then, Jane Fonda had sabotaged the Pentagon. Magical thinking! What no one wanted to accept was that the decisive struggle in Vietnam was a political war, not a military war. Military victories were not going to win the Vietnam War. At best they could simply prolong it, postpone the inevitable. When America lost interest, as it inevitably must, the issue would be decided by a conventional tussle between north and south, a winner-takes-all civil war.
Back to Obama. Is Afghanistan truly a war that America cannot afford to lose? If so, is that because of this particular war and its geopolitical consequences or is that because America just can't bear losing? If it's the first, Obama must find some way to diminish the adverse consequences of leaving. Since we're the foreigners, the Infidels, maybe bringing in all the neighbours - Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would be a good start.
Afghanistan may not be well suited to strong, central government. It may just be better off as a loose federation of five or six semi-autonomous states reflecting its marked ethnic or tribal diversity. It's painfully clear that if the West insists on an effective, central government model with provinces ruled by governors answerable to Kabul, we're going to have a tough challenge finding a leader who is up to the job, one man (and yes it will be a man) who will be able to command the support of these unruly tribes.
I think the Kabul government model is a proven loser. It didn't work under the Communists. It didn't work under the Taliban. It's not working under our guy Karzai either. Why do we keep pursuing this failed experiment? Isn't that the definition of madness? Are we trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole?
McChrystal is urging Obama to start again and it's becoming apparent he may have a point. However it's not starting the war anew that's the answer, it's a wholesale political restructuring of Afghanistan that may be the key. That might be Obama's only option to extract at least a draw in the political war underway today in Afghanistan.