Wednesday, December 02, 2009

So Many Wars, So Little Time

To hear Barack Obama tell it, the US will begin drawing down its troop force in Afghanistan at roughly the same time as the Canadian military starts packing its bags to come home. Yeah, sure.

Listening to the president's address last night it came across not as an explanation but more of an announcement. Obama announced what, why, who, where, when and - supposedly - for how long. The "what" was whatever Americans have come to mean by the word "surge." That word has taken on near magical connotations in the US since Petraeus first hitched it to the notion of victory in Iraq, one of the best sleight of hand feats in recent memory. Who - 30,000, where - Afghanistan of course, silly, when - ASAP, why - gotta turn things around and defend population centres, and, for how long - three years (The Good Lord willing and the Creek (indians, not river) don't rise).

Now an explanation would have opened Obama to some interesting questions. Here's one. How do you fight an insurgency/rebellion by falling back on population centres? While the US was holding the North Vietnamese at bay, they weren't doing it from the suburbs of Saigon. They fought those forces in the field where they massed and along their supply line, the Ho Chi Minh trail.

When you fall back on population centres you surrender vital territory and hand the bad guys the initiative. Then again, when you have a resurgent enemy coupled with a grossly understrength force even with the "surge" you really don't have much choice but to fall back but make no mistake, that's not a sign of progress much less victory. Yielding territory and population to an insurgency is a tacit defeat. That is the very key that transforms an insurgency into a civil war which begins taking us back to Afghanistan, pre-9/11. Yippee!

There was an interesting exchange last night on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart's guest was Thomas Friedman who came to the studio fresh from a correspondents' lunch at the White House where Obama gave his guests a rundown on the policy he would announce that night. I often disagree with Friedman except when I don't (yes, I know how that sounds) and last night was one of those exceptions.

Friedman noted that Obama's plan is to take the current insurgency, add more troops, and get to a place where the Afghan government can keep al-Qaeda out of that country for good. He then pointed out that, without a viable Afghan government rid of paralyzing corruption, capable of delivering services and actually governing, that end goal was a hash pipedream. In other words, you can't get there from here so long as a Karzai government persists.

Unfortunately Obama's military advisers seem as myopic as his announced policy. Three years? There's an enormous, under-resourced amount of work to do in just three years. You have to virtually go to war on the Kabul government. You have to beat back and beat down the insurgency. And you have to generate winning conditions for Islamabad's war against its own Pashtun insurrection in the tribal lands (without, somehow, empowering Pakistan to crush the Baloch uprising that you oh so quietly actually can support). Just getting a decent start on all those wars within three years will be a Herculean challenge.

But, here's the kicker. You've said it. You've announced "three years." Whoopsie! In that one statement you've created an array of expectations. Every affected party is going to enter "three years" into their own calculator and see what comes out. Every one - Kabul, Islamabad, Pakistan's duplicitous military intelligence, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Baloch, India, every antsy warlord, the drug lords and the smugglers. This does not bode well for the future.

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