Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Whither American & Western Policy in Afghanistan? A comment

"The United States intervened in Afghanistan after September 11 to wreck al-Qaeda. Ousting the Taliban offered the added benefit of warning other governments that hosting terrorists was a sure ticket to destruction. Both objectives were quickly achieved...The death of bin Laden should be the signal for President Obama to begin a speedy disengagement.

The United States went into Afghanistan to disrupt and oust the Taliban. In that Washington has been successful. The original organization has been dismantled. The number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is estimated to be in the scores. Bin Laden’s long sojourn in Pakistan demonstrates that Afghanistan’s neighbor is now al-Qaeda’s real home. Moreover, much terrorist energy has shifted to independent offshoots in other nations—today most importantly Yemen. For them Afghanistan is irrelevant. There is enough loosely governed territory on earth for terrorists to always find sanctuary somewhere.

Anyway, the lesson that America is able and willing to retaliate when attacked remains. Even in 2001 the Taliban appeared to be linked to al-Qaeda more by hospitality than ideology, and the Taliban leadership seemed none too pleased at what bin Laden brought down upon his hosts. The movement was committed to ruling Afghanistan, not provoking America. The last decade likely has reinforced those sentiments. Today’s Taliban contains some Islamic extremists, but much of its manpower comes from Pashtun villagers determined to fight outsiders at home, not attack foreigners abroad. It seems unlikely that the Taliban would risk any power regained by inviting back al-Qaeda. In fact, unverified accounts suggest that some Taliban officials have offered intelligence about al-Qaeda to demonstrate their interest in holding political talks with the Kabul government and the U.S.
If America is not in Afghanistan to stop terrorism, then what are roughly 100,000 U.S. military personnel, along with tens of thousands of allied troops, military contractors, and aid workers, doing? U.S. intervention is supposed to enforce “stability” in this “vital” region, just like Washington policy makers term most every other spot on earth. Yet for America’s first two centuries or so, no policy maker would have imagined having any reason to go to war in Central Asia. President Bush acted not because Afghanistan was strategically important to America but because it hosted al-Qaeda training camps.

The region is no more important today to the United States. Of course, Afghanistan matters much more to its neighbors, particularly Russia, China, Iran, India, and Pakistan. Some policy makers appear to fantasize that only a pro-Western government buttressed by an American military presence can prevent the region from degenerating into a renewed “Great Game” involving potentially violent geopolitical competition. But it’s too late. That struggle already is ongoing…”

Douglas Bandow, “Damage control in Kabul,” The National Interest. 16 May 2011, in

“Gone were the days when we enjoyed the luxury of choosing the moment to involve ourselves in world affairs. We were permanently involved---but not so physically or morally predominant as before. We had to take account of other power centers and strive for an equilibrium among them. The China initiative also restored perspective to our national policy. It reduced Indochina to its proper scale---a small peninsula on a major continent.”

Henry Alfred Kissinger, The White Hours Years (1979), p. 1049 (emphasis added).

With the death of Bin Laden, it is now possible to view the American, Western involvement in the Afghanistan imbroglio, in its proper perspective. Along the lines that Mr. Douglas Bandow lays out above. And that perspective is that per se, there are no great American / Western interests in the country of a positive variety. The only interests are of a negative variety: denying this country to any third party who wishes to make use of it, as a base and or safe harbor for terrorist activity. Id est, what the Al Qaeda was utilizing it for prior to the 11th of September 2001. And therefore, the proposal that the American Vice-President, Mr. Biden offered up, in the internal policy review conducted by the American administration approximately two years ago, was in fact a correct one: a light ‘footprint’, on the ground, with a much greater reliance upon drone strikes and air power, as well as the occasional special forces assault tactics (`a la the type of attack which eliminated Bin Laden). The only problem of such a strategy is that it recapitulates what was the Rumsfeldian strategy circa 2002-2006, with the only addition of the drone strikes, and of course the prospects of a ‘negotiated’ settlement of the conflict with elements of the Taliban. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing positively that those elements of the Taliban who do wish to opt out of the conflict are either the majority or the most important ones to speak of. Which in concrete terms means that there is a possibility, not perhaps a strong possibility, but still something that a return to the Rumsfeldian strategy plus, will result in a collapse of the existing regime in Kabul. Or at the very least, its presence in the entire Pashtun portion of the country in the South and West. And potentially a complete regime collapse `a la what happened in South Vietnam in the Spring of 1975. In short, the Rumsfeld-Biden policy is a calculated risk, but in the circumstances, it seems to me to be a better strategy, than pouring troops and money for what is au fond, a secondary strategic interest. Given the limited resources that the USA can count on at the moment, attempting to make Afghanistan into a secure, western-leaning country, seems to me to be a rather utopian prospect. I of course admit, that I among others, viewed this prospect as a necessary one, circa, one or two years ago, but, as Lord Keynes once put it: ‘when the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do sir?’


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