Monday, November 30, 2009
On Monday, Barack Obama will call for a troop surge. What really matters is a potential sea change in U.S. policy toward its enemy
WASHINGTON–If the horns of his dilemma weren't already obvious, President Barack Obama now has this unsavoury sequence at hand.
Monday, in what promises to be the foreign policy speech of his young presidency, Obama will take ownership of the faltering war in Afghanistan.
And barely a week later, in a moment of impending irony too close for comfort, he will fly to Oslo and take ownership of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Between these two unlikely events, Congress will return belly-full from Thanksgiving turkey to chew on Obama's agonizing decision – (another) troop surge, (another) retooled strategy, this time designed around the counterintuitive ideal that America will go big in Afghanistan in order to go home – and decide whether to pay for it.
With the war already bleeding the U.S. Treasury more than $3.6 billion a month, the extra 30,000 soldiers in this ante-upping plan are expected to drive the cost to $6 billion.
Soured by eight unbroken years of overseas fighting and an economic tailspin of unemployment, Americans will brace for the bitter taste of hard-sell as the White House lines up not just Obama but its entire Afghanistan war council to make the case that more is less. That in ramping up, the U.S. will simultaneously locate the road home for the troops.
Yet while the debate has been all about the surge, what matters most is not numbers but strategy – not just in the words from Obama, but actual change on the ground. And here, a case for dramatically lowered expectations – a healthy dose of realism that Afghanistan cannot be made good, but maybe, just maybe good enough – appears imminent.
White House and U.S. military sources have signalled for weeks that part of the way forward will be a redefinition of the Taliban as perhaps not so bad after all. Or not so very much worse, at least, than the corruption-plagued regime that has metastasized beneath Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"We believe our strategic problem with the Taliban begins and ends with their support for al Qaeda and their aggression against the United States and our allies," a U.S. official in Kabul told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"If the Taliban made clear that they have broken with al Qaeda and that their own objectives were nonviolent and political – however abhorrent to us – we wouldn't be keeping 68,000-plus troops here."
In this respect, at least, the U.S. now appears to be coming around to the candid view articulated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the sidelines of last year's NATO summit in Bucharest – that the lofty ideals articulated in the early years of the conflict are unrealistic. Afghanistan will still be a mess when NATO leaves. Violence will continue. That perhaps now the best-case scenario to end this latest chapter of the Great Game is a grand bargain with the other side – Afghan reconciliation, involving those who can be reconciled.
But in upping the ante, Team Obama accepts that the U.S.-led effort first must establish a firmer hold on the country to improve its leverage, even as it dispatches academics such as New York University scholar Barnett Rubin, one of the country's foremost authorities on Afghanistan, to work the back channels toward rapprochement.
Taliban leader-in-exile, one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar, again rejected the prospect for peace talks in a statement this week, saying: "The people of Afghanistan will not agree to negotiation which prolongs and legitimizes the invader's military presence in our beloved country. Afghanistan is our home."
But beneath the bluster, the U.S. senses room for movement. Rubin and fellow Washington insider Thomas Pickering, leading a joint task force earlier this year, reported that "the (Taliban) Quetta shura is showing signs of willingness to distance itself from al Qaeda and seek a political settlement."
In the wake of Karzai's fraud-soaked re-election, Obama is expected to hinge all future commitments on the discredited Afghan regime's ability to mend its ways. And also on the broader, comprehensive strategy that amps up pressure on neighbouring Pakistan.
All this is more than a tall order as Obama tilts toward the grudging terrain of Republican hawks, for whom the military can do no wrong and the President can do no right. And an enormously bitter pill for America's doves – anti-war Democrats who helped engineer last year's presidential victory on the promise of exit from Iraq.
The long-suffering leadership in NATO capitals everywhere will hang on Obama's every word when he speaks Monday at West Point military academy in New York. They, too, are feeling the White House heat, with amped-up pleas for another 10,000 soldiers to fill the gap demanded by Obama's military overseer in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Other numbers matter more – the rising public distaste for the conflict on almost every home front. The Netherlands and Canada, barring a last-minute change of heart by the Harper government, have had enough of the heavy lifting and appear politically incapable of answering U.S. pleas for more.
Germany, now wracked with its own internal scandal over an alleged cover-up of its military role in September air strikes on stolen fuel tankers that caused scores of Afghan civilian deaths, also appears stuck. French President Nicolas Sarkozy last month vowed he "will not send a single soldier more."
Britain, where public support for the conflict also is plummeting – and where Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth this week openly criticized Obama for dragging out his decision – appears willing to buck the tide with a modest infusion of new troops.
And quietly, in an echo of what turned the tide in Iraq, the U.S. appears to be readying a push toward winning Afghanistan valley by valley with offers of cash for local Afghan militia leaders willing to come onside the renewed U.S. effort. The program, reportedly led by U.S. Special Forces, could see as much as $1.3 billion made available to bring Afghan militias into a stand against anti-government guerrillas.
The latter move worries many longtime Afghan analysts, given that it runs counter to the earlier United Nations effort at disarming militias throughout the country. Afghanistan, they warn, is massively more complex than Iraq and empowering yet more local armies might only make it worse.
But with an estimated 25 per cent of the Afghan National Army resigning each year at the end of the traditional summer fighting season, there appear drastically few options for placing enough control in Afghan hands to enable a way out for U.S. and its NATO allies.
With such a range of unenviable choices and the certainty that these will bring still more U.S. bodybags home, little wonder Team Obama spent months poring over the details.
Now comes the hard part selling it to Americans and the rest of the world. And the infinitely harder part – making it work.