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Some thoughts about AfPak: It’s just politics as usual

October 23, 2009


By Michael S. Smith II, SCHotline Contributing Editor

On Monday, October 19, the mounting rift between Barack Obama’s doveish political consultants and his sorely ignored defense advisers, both formal and informal, became perhaps more certain than ever before when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters, as Reuters paraphrased his comments, “The United States cannot wait for problems surrounding the legitimacy of the Afghan government to be resolved before making a decision on troops.”

According to Reuters reporter Phil Stewart, Gates “described the situation in Afghanistan as an evolutionary process that would not improve dramatically overnight, regardless of what course is taken following the country’s flawed August election.”

“I think the key consideration before us at this point is actually less (one of) security … (it’s) the weather. So getting something done before winter sets in will be very important,” Gates advised.

The problem with actually getting anything done in Afghanistan before winter sets in, Mr. Gates:  In the U.S., many Democrats whose continued presence in The Capitol will be essential to the president’s ability to achieve many of his goals – Democrats whose support for Obama’s pleas for health care (insurance) reform, Cap and Trade, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and a long list of other Obama administration-led legislative initiatives has placed their political futures in just as much jeopardy as Hamid Karzai’s pursuant to his rigging the recent election in Afghanistan – will soon be up for reelection in November. And David Axelrod and the like are no-doubt foolishly telling the president the surest way for Mr. Obama to ensure their reelections might not actually occur is to oblige Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for the deployments of the guestimated number of troops needed to resolve the world’s problems in AfPak (Translation: Launch a much-needed, full-fledged, traditional kinetic forces-oriented war in Persia).

Last month, I used the following pull quote from Thomas P.M. Barnett’s September 14 column for World Politics Review, titled “The New Rules: In Afghanistan, It’s About More Than Just the U.S.,” as the intro for an oped I penned for The Free Enterprise Foundation:

“… And so long as Democrats continue the tragic Bush-Cheney habit of wedding themselves to internal political timetables … it’s hard to see how any interested great power would trust our strategically myopic leadership.”

Earlier in 2009, I organized a visit to Charleston for Thomas P.M. Barnett in order for Dr. Barnett to speak at The Citadel. During my visit with him I learned the so-called “Grand Strategist” was an Obama supporter. (Hey, life gets kinda boring if all of your friends like the same political candidates, right?)

The fact that one of the brightest geopolitical strategists on Team Old Glory, who also happens to be a supporter of the current president, was using terms like myopic to describe any aspect of the Obama administration’s foreign policy pursuits struck me as an indication that America may have some very, very big problems on our hands. Oddly, his recent column sounded rather aligned in perspective with the September 13 oped published in The Wall Street Journal by senators McCain, Graham and Lieberman titled “Only Decisiveness Can Prevail in Afghanistan.” Ergo, I thought Dr. Barnett’s statement, for those who know much about him, was a striking tone-setter for a piece in which I would conclude that:

“To restore some form of stability and order to the post-Cold War international system the president must muster the political will to do what is needed to destroy any possible futures for both the Taliban and al Qa’ida – he must fight a war in Afghanistan.

“While senators McCain, Graham and Lieberman may believe ‘we must commit the ‘decisive force’ that Gen. McChrystal tells us carries the least risk of failure,’ this American believes the president must instead commit the decisive force that Gen. McChrystal tells us carries the most (emphasis on most) chances for success, and not just the least risk for failure.”

In an October 22nd blog posting regarding Bob Gates’ October 19 stated dissenting view on the value of the Obama administration’s explanation for its hand-sitting when it comes to decisiveness on the AfPak front, Barnett, perhaps surprisingly for some, wrote: “I do agree with Gates on this: waiting for the ‘best’ Afghan government to emerge is backasswards. The U.S. military is the biggest provider of certainty right now in that system. Take away that certainty and there’s virtually no chance the government can achieve it on its own.”

More recently, Barnett, whose views on defense strategy – if you haven’t already guessed – are taken very seriously by me, endorsed the perspective of a soon-to-be distributed column for The New Yorker by Steve Coll titled “War and Politics.”

In that piece Coll writes:

“American interests in Afghanistan-namely, the disablement of Al Qaeda along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the pursuit of a region free from the threat of Taliban revolution-should not be wholly confused with the quest for an honest President in Kabul, where rulers have not often been trustworthy. …

“Since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, in 1979, attempts by foreign powers to shape events there have repeatedly been thwarted by what intelligence analysts call ‘mirror imaging,’ which is the tendency of decision-makers in one country to judge counterparts in another through the prism of their own language and politics. …

“As the Obama war cabinet now debates its choices, American discourse barely refers to Afghan leaders by name or to the particular equations of the country’s diverse provinces. Instead, historical analogies and abstract concepts from political-theory texts abound – arguments about ‘legitimacy’ and ‘governance,’ as if the Taliban were motivated primarily by the ‘Rights of Man.’ Obama and his advisers might profitably consult the Democratic Party’s own book of rules, specifically an entry composed by a peaceable boss from Massachusetts: All politics is local. In the case of Afghanistan, there is a corollary: All local progress, or failure, will be political.”

I met Steve Coll several years prior to Barnett’s visit to Charleston when Coll also visited The Citadel. He was on a book tour promoting his then latest work, “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001…,” a book the Obama administration’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, ought to read, and then look to U.S. efforts there after 9/11, before continuing to falsely assert his boss’s predecessor grossly neglected to deal with threats in Afghanistan in any meaningful ways. Spewk Team Jaw Breaker, anyone?

Coll, although perhaps not the most affable visiting writer to Charleston who I’ve met, is one of America’s foremost insightful writers on U.S.-Persia relations. There are few nongovernmental analysts of events in Persia from the U.S. who are better able to interpret the pulses of events in Afghanistan, or make recommendations for how America ought to respond to those events. What’s more, his recent piece for The New Yorker highlights just how baseless the Obama administration’s latest stated rational for its (parochially) politically-motivated avoidance of decisiveness in AfPak truly is. (This from a guy who I assume is probably also very liberal-leaning in his political philosophies.)

For anyone who’s wondering about whether the U.S. should send more troops to Afghanistan, and why the Obama administration wants to avoid this question on the whole, the bottom line is: As Thomas P.M. Barnett recently put it, the U.S. military is the biggest provider of certainty right now in the Afghan political system. “Take away that certainty and there’s virtually no chance the government can achieve it on its own.” Meanwhile, here at home, as Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported on October 23, “The decline in Barack Obama’s popularity since July has been the steepest of any president at the same stage of his first term for more than 50 years,” which does not bode well for onlookers hoping he’ll do the right thing in Afghanistan.

In other words:  It’s politics as usual – both in Persia and here at home.




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