Afghanistan threatens to destroy Barack Obama‘s presidency. Lost in the Inauguration euphoria this week is that our celebrity-in-chief is poised to commit a massive strategic military blunder - one that will squander American blood and treasure, and perhaps mark the end of our superpower status. The United States is sleepwalking toward disaster.
Mr. Obama vows to transfer troops from Iraq into southern Afghanistan. Facing a resurgent Taliban, he wants to replicate the successful “surge” in Iraq by infusing 20,000 to 30,000 additional soldiers. In particular, Mr. Obama seeks to bolster NATO forces around Kandahar, and stem the growing tide of guerrilla attacks.
The centerpiece of his foreign policy - and that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - is that Iraq was “the wrong war, at the wrong time, in the wrong place.” He believes Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terrorism: It is in that mountainous, unruly land that America’s enemies must be vanquished. Mr. Obama is convinced that, by crushing the Taliban insurgents, a decisive victory can be won against Islamist extremism. He is wrong. Sending more troops will only perpetuate mistaken Bush administration policies.
The decision to topple the Taliban regime was the right one: It provided a safe haven for al Qaeda, which enabled the terror group to launch the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The U.S. intervention dismantled its training camps. Countless terrorists were killed or captured. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership was decapitated. Moreover, for years, jihadists had struck American targets with impunity - the 1979 kidnapping of U.S. diplomats held as hostages in Iran, the mass murder of 241 U.S. service personnel in Beirut, the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center, the 2000 suicide strikes on the USS Cole. By invading Afghanistan, President Bush sent a necessary message around the world: America would hit back - and hit back hard. Also, Washington dislodged a medieval theocratic state, where homosexuals were routinely executed and women enslaved, and replaced it with a pro-American democracy. Mr. Bush liberated 23 million Muslims from tyranny.
By 2005, America had achieved all its strategic objectives in Afghanistan. Yet, instead of declaring mission accomplished and slowly pulling out American forces, Mr. Bush did the very opposite. He embarked upon nation-building. Washington sought to rebuild Afghanistan’s economy, resuscitate its agriculture, destroy its flourishing heroin trade, entrench women’s rights and establish an independent judiciary and the rule of law.
Most foolishly, the administration helped to transform the country into a centralized unitary state, where power is consolidated in the hands of a strong president and a vigorous executive branch. The result has been a violent backlash among numerous tribal chiefs and religious leaders.
From its creation in the 18th century, Afghanistan has been an ethnic and linguistic patchwork - more of a fractious collection of bickering warlords and Muslim clerics than a coherent nation. The only form of government suitable to it is a loose federation where economic, cultural and political authority is devolved to its diverse tribal regions and provinces.
The absence of a decentralized power structure is now fueling the insurgency. The country’s ethnic Pashtuns, who form more than 42 percent of the population, are seething that the Bush administration decided to prop up President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt and inefficient government. Rather than fostering a power-sharing arrangement among the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara Shi’ites, the United States has put all its political eggs in one basket - Mr. Karzai. But he is not Afghanistan’s George Washington. Instead, Mr. Karzai is an incompetent thug. He possesses no national constituency and has failed to impose central-government control over most of its territory. The administrative bureaucracy is a giant parasite, sucking billions in foreign aid - where large chunks are being stolen and siphoned off by greedy apparatchiks - while doing little to build modern roads, schools and hospitals. The Afghan army and police forces are corrupt and ineffective, reluctant to fight the insurgents.
The key to success is not an infusion of American troops; it is the recognition that local warlords - like in Iraq - must be co-opted and given a real stake in Afghanistan’s future. The Taliban are hated by too many Afghans to return to power. In fact, a large segment of the Taliban is not even anti-American. They are Pashtun nationalists, who feel marginalized by Mr. Karzai’s regime.
Nation-building is not the answer. It is the problem. America has embraced an open-ended, impossible mission. Washington’s primary national interest is not to plant modern institutions on Afghanistan’s stony soil, but to prevent it from becoming a haven again for Islamist training bases. For this, nimble special forces are sufficient, provided they are nearby and ready to strike.
Mr. Obama, however, promises to Americanize the war - with no end in sight. He will pour even more troops into a bloody quagmire, while the Afghan military sits on the sidelines. Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires; it humiliated the mighty Soviet Red Army and brought the British to their knees.
The establishment media have cast Mr. Obama as the 21st-century version of President John F. Kennedy - a sophisticated internationalist, whose inspirational leadership and soaring rhetoric will restore liberalism both at home and abroad. They have no idea how accurate their comparison is. Kennedy was not only inexperienced but reckless. He brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. More importantly, it was Kennedy who gave us Vietnam, a military disaster from which America has never truly recovered.
Mr. Obama is now following Kennedy’s footsteps. Afghanistan will be his Vietnam. And when the body bags of dead American soldiers start coming home, Mr. Obama’s liberal base will turn against the war - just as they did in the 1960s. This will split his party and break his presidency. He lacks the stomach for a protracted campaign. He will cut Afghanistan loose - just as the liberals cut Vietnam loose.
The result will be not only another major defeat. It will mean the loss of U.S. prestige and credibility on the world stage, the moment America becomes a paper tiger - a toothless great power unable and unwilling to win its wars. This is the real “change” that awaits us.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times.