- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009


In recent days, I have listened to some of our best analysts and military leaders expound on the war in Afghanistan, now 8 long years old and a war one might rationally suppose would eventually face some resolution.

Even President Obama might be assuming that, since he has ordered 17,000 more troops to that historically difficult country as well as a “strategic review” of our increasingly exhausting position there.

It might be gratifying that virtually everyone I listened to - at a two-day symposium, “NATO at 60,” sponsored by the European Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, and elsewhere - has come up with the same ideas. The only problem is that they were uniformly negative.

Barnett Rubin of New York University, arguably the country’s primary specialist on Afghanistan, told the symposium, alternately wry and despairing: “We should question whether the U.S. has clearly defined goals in Afghanistan. We have outlined the most grandiose goals possible - and given the least amount of support to them. … We should start here in the U.S. and ask, ‘What are the objectives for which we are fighting?’ ”

At the same meeting, the opening speaker, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, noted soberly that in Afghanistan: “Last year, there was a 40 percent increase in incidents [against NATO]. In other words, the trend does not favor us.” Then the audience responded with comments like, “It is not clear to me what it means to win, or lose, in Afghanistan.”

But if one looked for the underlying question in this symposium - not to speak of recent glum on-the-record responses like those of Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. Mike Mullen - there is one question that, as I listened, now jumps out at me from all these words like a whirling dervish: Who is the enemy in Afghanistan?

No one seems to know. We are engaged mightily in still another American post-colonial conflict, and we have allowed it to grow exponentially, from readily identifiable enemies of our own - the immediate perpetrators and active supporters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack - to just about everybody who happens to live in the neighborhood.

As Ali Jalali, former Afghan interior minister and now a specialist with the National Defense University, said of his country at the symposium: “There are three kinds of opposition - the traditional insurgency of people who have been mistreated by the government and is not ideology-backed, the classic ideological Taliban-type movement, and the global movements using Afghanistan for their own purposes.”

And Milton Bearden, the former CIA official who importantly managed covert assistance to the Afghan mujaheedin during the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s, wrote in a recent issue of the National Interest: “There is an unrelenting insurgency - we call it the Taliban, though that is a dangerous simplification. It is in effect a Pashtun insurgency, made up of, indeed, Taliban, but also angry Pashtuns, criminal bands and paid gunfighters.”

We are fighting all of them. Barnett Rubin carries the argument further, saying flatly, “There are no international terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan today - they are in Pakistan.” And he argues that thus, “We end up going after groups not relevant to international terrorism.” On CNN Sunday, the brilliant French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said “there is not a single Taliban involved in the global revolution … and the Taliban was certainly not involved in Sept. 11” attacks on America in 2001.

So, let’s sum up what we can. We are fighting an all-out war in Afghanistan, where the terrorists are not, while the terrorists dig in where we dare not go in wild border regions of Pakistan. Most important, we are, or at least are widely perceived as, waging war against just about every radical or other group or nutso individual in Afghanistan that doesn’t like the length of our hair or the blow of the wind in our geopolitical jib.

The Taliban was not guilty of Sept. 11; small groups of al Qaeda were. Yet those small groups are now hiding, and indeed lost, inside our bigger, looser and incomprehensibly vague and indefinable war in a country of eternal insurgencies.

Unfortunately, this is something we have done repeatedly in our involvements in these Third World wars, where political and belligerent identities not only are unclear but change from day to day, and where our officials constantly (and ambitiously) keep upping our antes. We started fighting the communists in Vietnam, for instance. By the end, we were waging war against everybody who was against colonialism.

Essentially, in the Obama strategic review, we need to re-examine the entire decision-making process after Sept. 11. Former President George H.W. Bush, James Baker III and their group of solid, pragmatic thinkers who understood the world, human nature and the limits of violence, had wanted to see us treat Sept. 11 as a police action - to go after the real, immediate, palpable perpetrators of the tragedy, working with sympathetic governments to destroy them quickly and effectively.

Instead, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - filled with arrogance and hubris, bereft of any modesty about America’s capacities in the world - chose to attack whole nations.

And so we end up with even a sympathetic friend like Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying Sunday on television: “I would like to ask President Obama, ‘What is your plan to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans?’ … If he wants others to do more, he has to answer some hard questions.”

This is where the infinitely more intelligent and cautious President Barack Obama finds himself today, faced with that central question that must first be answered before any others: Who are our enemies in Afghanistan?

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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