Sunday, February 15, 2009

Obama's Gordion Knot

It's one thing to launch a war but it's another thing altogether to politically inherit a war, especially when it's two wars, two wars that are going very badly, two unpopular wars, too wars that are bleeding your country dry. Welcome to the world of Barack Obama.

The American people have a low tolerance for defeat. It's why they tell themselves they won the War of 1812 and Korea. You probably don't fully grasp this point unless you were around to see America go through the aftermath of Viet Nam. This is a reality that ties the hands of the new American president.

Obama needs a way out but it has to be one that can give the illusion of, if not victory, at least something less than defeat. Truth be told, Iraq isn't much more of a victory today than it was when Bush appeared in front of the Mission Accomplished banner in 2003.

There's a sizzling, popping sound in Baghdad and it's the fuze burning on the Kurdish constitution which, when it reaches the powder (also known as Kirkuk), could blow Iraq into pieces. Right now everything's on hold - the unresolved Kurd versus Arab struggle; the Sunni versus Shiite conflict and the in-house Shia contest between the nationalists of Sadr and the pro-Iran moderates of Maliki.

Getting out of Iraq is going to be tricky. It's a question of optics, a problem that bedeviled Richard Nixon three decades ago. He talked about "vietnamizing" the war and literally chanted "peace with honour" like a mantra but there weren't many who believed it and those that did were crushed when Russian-made tanks rolled through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. In America, somebody had to pay and, with Nixon in the death grip of Watergate, he got tagged. Nixon resigned and the Marine helicopter took out the trash.

Obama needs to get out of Iraq quickly because that's his only chance to pin what's coming on Bush/Cheney. It's also why Petraeus is said to be working to undermine Obama's plans. The Pentagon is in "musical chairs" mode too and Petraeus doesn't want to be the general tagged with losing Iraq. Generals associated with defeat don't tend to have successful political careers afterward.

But, even if Obama does manage to slip the noose of Baghdad, he's still got Kabul to confront. The American public might tolerate watching Iraq explode but they probably aren't ready to accept a defeat in Afghanistan.

A key problem with Afghanistan is trying to figure out just what a victory would look like. It doesn't help that neo-con morons like Bush and Harper defined the objective as defeating the Taliban and establishing a secular democracy. Based on what these clowns so loudly promised us, we've already suffered a double defeat.

To weigh Obama's options it's necessary to consider where Afghanistan was on 11 September, 2001 and where it is today. In 2001, Afghanistan was still wrestling with the power vacuums left over from the ouster of the Soviet Union years earlier. The Taliban were the titular government but were caught in a stalemated civil war with what we came to call the "Northern Alliance" (there were others). It was rebellious warlords versus the Pashtun administration of the Taliban backed by Pakistan.

So stalemated was the civil war that the exhausted adversaries had lapsed into trench warfare, reduced to a daily ritual of lobbing artillery barrages at each other. That's why the CIA with just a small number of agents and the enormous firepower of the United States Air Force was able to transform the stalemate into a full-bore Taliban rout that went so quickly that America couldn't keep up with it. They literally begged (unsuccessfully) the Northern Alliance warlords to slow down, to let them catch up.

Washington really didn't have a post-Taliban game plan and, in fairness, there wasn't time to come up with one. So they grabbed a compliant Pashtun warlord named Karzai, installed him in power and left it to him to forge a suitable government.

What Washington never thought to do, and probably never had the means to accomplish, was to dismantle Afghan warlordism. To the contrary, warlords quickly demanded and achieved stations of power in the central government while others were installed as provincial governors.

The warlords are a key factor to the future of Afghanistan. They're beyond the scope of this post but it's enough to understand that they are warlords in every sense of the word - lords of war. In conjunction with Afghanistan's tribalism (Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara, Turkmen, etc.) their very existence creates divisions and power struggles that inevitably undermine the prospect of a viable central government in Kabul. Warlordism plus tribalism is the recipe for civil war. Complicate that with a corrupt government and a massive criminal enterprise, not to mention a growing insurgency, and the prospects of a viable, central government ruling the country begin to approach nil.

These warlords are not illiterate peasants. Many of them, such as the Pashtun warlord we know as Hamid Karzai, are university educated. They're also incredibly skilled in the dark arts of betrayal and treachery. It is said there isn't one among them who hasn't, at some point, been at war with and allied with each of the others. Some of those who purport to back Karzai today are weighing their future with the insurgency instead.

What began as an insurgency a few years back is inching ever closer to an actual civil war. The Taliban aren't just planting roadside bombs and firing on NATO convoys. They're actually establishing power structures - political, even judicial - either in place of or in parallel to the Kabul government.

This is the dilemma facing Barack Obama. Maybe just holding the Taliban to a mere insurgency, preventing a full-blown civil war, is a real victory but it won't be politically satisfying at home. The American people need to see bin Laden's head on a pole especially if they see Mullah Mohammed Omar's right beside it.

Maybe Obama can persuade the American people that there was never going to be the sort of victory promised by the Bushies in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Maybe Obama can persuade the American people to accept that the future of Iraq and Afghanistan will be decided by the Iraqis and Afghans and, in all likelihood, through plenty of violence. Maybe Obama can persuade the American people to simply let go.

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