Tuesday, June 21, 2011

To No One's Surprise...

....certainly not to my readers, President Obama will announce troop cuts in Afghanistan.
Here's the thing: 30,000 sounds impressive until you realize that basically brings us back to twice the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan on January 21, 2009. This "surge" was enabled because Obama drew these troops down from Iraq and shuffled them over a country or two.
In fairness to Obama, Afghanistan was the forgotten war in the Bush administration, and so was wildly underresourced. It really deserved more focus in the early years, and many opportunities were lost. Obama had no choice but to double down.
And that's fine, for what it is. Strategic troop placements definitely have had an impact, but as the focus of attention turned from Iraq (the "wrong" war) to Afghanistan (the "right" one), it became clear that the situation in Afghanistan was untenable as status quo, even allowing for the surge. The goal of the mission, the defeat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, was sort of successful, if you believe that Al Qaeda is crippled (it is) beyond repair (probably) and that the Taliban will behave themselves (probably not, but I'd be willing to be surprised.)
It was not by any means a rousing success, full stop. At best, we're looking at between 60-80% of our objective achieved, at a great cost to both Afghanis and American troops.
And if you define the mission as the one Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others have envisioned, a transformation of Afghanistan into a firewall against Islammic extremism, then we've failed miserably if we allow the Taliban to come to the table and define a role for themselves in Afghanistan's future. At the very most we could hope for in terms of that goal, we've established a point of attack should extremism rear its ugly head.
Indeed, the Arab Spring has made that goal somewhat moot and problematic: extremism has been rejected time and time again by nations who are actually behind that firewall, leaving basically Iran and Pakistan as the major players in shaping Islamism. Syria may shortly see itself an island amidst moderates who won't accept noisy neighbors.
Or, As Richard Holbrooke said before he died last year:

“The weak point in America’s strategy has always been this endless debate about whether we were just there to protect ourselves or had a grander vision for Afghanistan."

By drawing troops down now, instead of next summer, it's clear that Obama is walking back the Clintonian doctrine. I expect Secretary Clinton to resign in the next few months, ahead of the election cycle next year.
The other aspect of this withdrawal is a rebuff of Hamid Karzai and the Afghani government. The President was fairly clear when he said the surge would last onoly so long as Afghanistan proved it was able to self-govern regions that would be secured by American troops.
Karzai has apparently been too busy miscounting votes and lining his pockets to notice that he's failed to secure any region beyond Kabul. In the midst of all this, he then turns on the hand feeding him and complains about an occupation.
That's rather rude, if perhaps true, but Karzai has always played this game of complaining while dipping his beak and this is what worries me about the Taliban negotiations.