Afghanistan is not only President Obama’s war, but also what he now calls “a war of necessity.” For the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haass, who was head of policy planning at the State Department in the run-up to the Iraq war, who voted for Mr. Obama, Afghanistan is a “war of choice, not of necessity,” that he fears we will learn to regret. This also reflects public opinion: Half the American people are against the Afghan war.
Mr. Haass’ latest book, “War of Choice, War of Necessity,” makes clear that Iraq was a war of choice, not necessity. It also was a huge distraction from the Afghan war, which got shortchanged as hundreds of billions of dollars were poured into the Iraq conflict.
What is now “necessity” for Mr. Obama in Afghanistan is “choice” — and a bad one at that — for the American people. Little understood is how it became necessity for the president. He tried to make it palatable to his left wing by saying Afghanistan is where al Qaeda — the monsters of Sept. 11, 2001 — were located. Actually, that’s where they are not located. They are in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But had the president come out against war in Afghanistan during last year’s campaign, just as he opposed the war in Iraq since he became a senator in January 2005, he most probably would have lost the election. Sen. John McCain would have accused him of weak-kneed pacifism and of adopting the proverbial head-in-sand posture of an ostrich that would then look surprised when it got kicked in the most obvious place.
Now that Afghanistan is Mr. Obama’s necessary war, what are his chances of emerging as the wise warrior? If he persuades the American people that we are engaged there for the long haul, as we were in Germany and Japan after World War II, there would be a better-than-even chance of developing a viable state sans Taliban. It would cost hundreds of billions more dollars. But Afghanistan is arguably the world’s most backward national entity, where warlords remain to be convinced that the United States and its friends and allies hold the winning ticket.
As long as Taliban and al Qaeda enjoy privileged sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the United States and NATO will be stuck in a no-win posture in Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and his troops have been busy pursuing Taliban terrorists in Pakistan proper. And the much-promised Pakistani offensive against the Afghan wing of Taliban in North and South Waziristan, two of the seven tribal agencies, is yet to materialize. The cynics in Pakistan argue that Taliban is bound to wear down the allies in Afghanistan over the long haul. And when Taliban was last in power in Afghanistan (1996-01), Pakistan enjoyed a secure western front for its defense in depth against Pakistan’s principal military concern — India.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Middle Eastern theater commander, says he thinks the current major Afghan commitment by the democratic camp should continue five to 10 more years — “whatever it takes.” But half the American people are already opposed to the Afghan war, and off-year elections are 16 months away. NATO allies and friendly nations engaged there — a total of 40 countries — are all eyeing exit expectations by 2011. Few are committed to combat against the Taliban insurgency.
NATO’s outgoing supreme commander, Gen. John Craddock, now retired, says it took him 18 months to get allies to curtail caveats against offensive operations from 80 to 73. But allies say Gen. Craddock failed to point out that the United States also has a monumental caveat: U.S. units are forbidden by law to serve under non-American command. Taliban commanders are skillful at exploiting such caveats.
Afghanistan’s much-anticipated elections do not a democracy make. Taliban’s bombs-vs.-ballots threats predictably kept the turnout low. But donkeys delivering ballot boxes in the foothills of the Hindu Kush were an important first step on the road out of the Middle Ages. Many nations — Spain, South Korea, Singapore — as well as Taiwan have demonstrated that democracy without a prosperous middle class is an exercise in self-delusion. In Afghan-istan so far, the only prosperity is in the cultivation of opium poppies.
Afghanistan’s $3 billion drug traffic also funds Taliban insurgents’ logistics section. In combat, their weapons frequently are more modern than what the Afghan national army takes into combat.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.