The country is a land mine. If not handled properly, it will blow a hole in the Obama presidency before the midterm elections.
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Fifth, what is the exit strategy? What constitutes success?
There are no agreed answers to these questions within the U.S. government or among the NATO partners. In my conversations with Admiral Mullen, the head of the Afghan program at Voice of America, and a recent assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, I found no agreement on the objective of our Afghan policy, no agreement on what we can or should spend or on an exit strategy. Nor is there agreement on whether Afghanistan is a stand-alone problem. It may be that the Afghan situation cannot be addressed without addressing an increasingly dysfunctional government in Pakistan. There is no mystery as to what is at stake here. Simple math indicates the administration’s commitment to restarting the U.S. economy means we cannot undertake another war costing billions, if not trillions of dollars. Moreover, the military is overstretched, which means we lack the manpower to apply overwhelming force at critical times and places.
Nor would we have the manpower to respond to emergencies in other parts of the world were we heavily committed in Afghanistan. But most of all, there is no public desire, no stomach, among the American people for another war of choice. Twice in the past half-century we have undertaken substantial military efforts abroad without sufficient public support and both, Vietnam and Iraq, have, in effect distorted and then destroyed the presidencies at the time.
The vast majority of Americans believe it is time to heal ourselves. Curiously, one asks why Barack Obama, given his public commitment to job creation, health care, and education, regulatory, and financial reform—is not among them.
The Way Forward
First, we must determine if Afghanistan is a stand-alone problem, then define our objectives and gain broad public support for whatever approach we take both in the U.S. and among our NATO allies. Failure to achieve this will bring political disaster to the Obama administration, compromise NATO, and continue the stalemate in Afghanistan.
Second, accept the lessons of history. Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires” for a reason. Conquest has been attempted through the ages but has not succeeded in the Christian era.
Today limited funds and an overstretched military impose choices. We are not able to mount a sustained military effort in Afghanistan unless we choose to neglect today’s pressing domestic economic requirements, or intend to assume heavy additional tax burdens or place additional crushing debt on future generations.
Given these conditions, a two-dimensional approach may make sense: first, accept that the objective is to deny the Taliban and al Qaeda a base in Afghanistan from which to strike the U.S. or its interests. Second, accept that separating the Taliban from opium revenues strikes at its ability to obtain weaponry. Then combine “soft” and “hard power” to use what Harvard professor Joseph Nye calls “smart power” to achieve this by addressing the opium issue and the Taliban/al Qaeda threat together.
Progress on the opium issue was made last June when the Group of Eight foreign ministers met in Japan and created a coordinating body to oversee the provision of some $4 billion in aid to the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their purpose is to improve police and military training and anti-drug trafficking programs. The anti-drug trafficking program is modeled on the Nixon-Kissinger program in Turkey that used product licensing to encourage Turkish farmers to sell their illegal opium crops to pharmaceutical companies to make legal medicine. This program would encourage Afghan farmers to sell their opium produce to an NGO that would pay them the same or more than they would get from the Taliban. The NGO would then sell it to hospitals worldwide to help address the global shortage in morphine. Clearly, this would cost less than fighting the Taliban and it would have the effect of cutting off the revenue the Taliban use to purchase weapons. (Moreover, there is some indication Tehran would be sympathetic to such an initiative that might provide the platform for expanded discussions to, eventually, include nuclear issues.)
Secondly, the Taliban and al Qaeda could be denied bases and training facilities by fully deploying the highly mobile strike capacity created by the U.S. military over the past decade. Continuing, and unpredictable, strikes by these forces would make Taliban/al Qaeda attack planning difficult if not impossible. Such U.S./NATO units would be deployed with the acknowledgment of Kabul and Pakistani authorities where necessary, and would avoid: (1) the greater cost of deploying large number of troops to permanent bases in-country, (2) tensions with our allies over troop commitments, (3) the need to generate broad public support for yet another “war.”
Suppressing the Taliban and separating it from its main source of financial support would render tribal authorities more approachable by the Karzai government. Finally, this approach accepts that neither we nor our allies fully understand the technology of nation building—and that this is not a nation-building effort—but we are prepared to join the international community in providing humanitarian assistance and stabilization measures at the request of the Kabul government.
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