Escalating to drawdown in Afghanistan? Dream on

Business Times - 03 Dec 2009

Escalating to drawdown in Afghanistan? Dream on


FIRST, the good news (or sort of): In his much-anticipated address on Tuesday outlining his strategy for Afghanistan, President Barack Obama refrained from employing the kind of fantasy-infused rhetoric about democratising the Middle East that his predecessor tended to apply when marketing his own war plans.

Indeed, Mr Obama did not sound very Wilsonian or messianic when calling on the American people to support his plan to deploy 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan within six months. In the tenor of the speech, Mr Obama could only be described as the anti-Bush: very cautious and very methodical; not an idealist, but a realist.

After all, it has taken him several months to deliberate on the Afghanistan strategy, including numerous meetings with his national security advisers and outside experts. 'As your commander-in-chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service,' Mr Obama told members of the audience that included veterans of the war in Afghanistan and some who would probably be deployed there in the future.

And unlike ex-president George W Bush, Mr Obama put an emphasis on the need to consider the expected economic costs of America's wars. 'Over the past several years, we have lost that balance and failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy,' he said, insisting that 'our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.'

As noted, those were the encouraging sounds of what was probably Mr Obama's most important speech to date. But scratch the rhetorical surface of the non-Bush oratory, and you discover that the strategy proposed by Mr Obama would probably end-up strengthening the foundations of the post-9/11 hegemonic project for the Greater Middle East; Bushism with an Obama face. Indeed, notwithstanding the realpolitik tone of Mr Obama's address, his suggestion that the deployment of more US troops would quicken the transfer of responsibility to the Afghan government and allow most US troops to get out of Afghanistan in three years had an air of pure fantasy.

Just consider the ambitious goals that Mr Obama has set for US strategy: reversing the Taleban's momentum and denying it the ability to overthrow Afghanistan's government while strengthening Afghanistan's security forces and government. That has all the making of nation-building, since it will require that Afghanistan - one of the world's most backward economic and political entities and a mish-mash of forever-fighting tribes - will have a legitimate and effective government, including functioning security forces. And as any student of Afghanistan will tell you, that isn't going to happen in three or five or even 15 years.

Which means that the US forces will either have to remain in Afghanistan for many, many years to come - with Washington being forced to send even more troops and increase economic assistance to Afghanistan - or that the rising costs of the American occupation will ignite more opposition from the American public and lead to a humiliating US withdrawal a la Vietnam that could prove to be detrimental to US and Western interests.

In short, the timeframe for transition set by Mr Obama is unrealistic and meaningless. Indeed, contrary to the pledge he made on Tuesday, the strategic goals for Afghanistan he outlined 'go beyond our responsibility, our means or our interests'. These goals seem to disregard the fact that Al-Qaeda has ceased to be a viable force in Afghanistan and are also based on the dubious assumption that 'Taleban's momentum' was a direct threat to US interests while failing to take into consideration the nationalist Pashtun component of the Taleban insurgency or the complex relationship between the Taleban and Al-Qaeda - in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

The truth is that Mr Obama has embraced the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy elites in Washington that the US needs to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan as part of an effort to protect the pro-American political and military elites that control Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. By the same token, one should expect that US military forces with also stay in Iraq for many years to come. If anything, against the backdrop of growing tensions with Iran, the number of US troops in the region would probably start rising soon.

As Washington continues maintaining its costly hegemonic project and to be drawn into the military quagmires in the Greater Middle East - let's not forget Lebanon and Israel/Palestine - it only provides incentives for the Europeans and other allies to continue their free-riding on US military power and it helps accelerate China's emergence as the pre-eminent global power.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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