At Large

Rediscovering the Wheel in Afghanistan

Barack Obama has all the makings of a shaky war president.

By 4.3.09

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In the arcane world of covert intelligence operations recruiting assets among enemy targets is a priority. To recruit an agent in a position to influence the actions of the target is an even higher priority. Why is it then that the White House treated as new and unique the issue of developing relations with so-called moderate elements among the Taliban?

The answer appears to lie in the strong desire of Barack Obama to create the impression not only that he is bringing something different to the table of Afghan affairs, but also that he is able to pursue non-lethal mechanisms to "solve" the Taliban's effort to regain control of Afghanistan. If any of this motivation is true, President Obama surely must know he is rather late in this contemplated effort.

The British military and intelligence already tested this path in the south. The Bush Administration had already authorized covert ops policy along these lines. Pakistani intelligence maintains extensive contact with both moderate and radical Taliban elements. And the Saudis have had long-term dealings with the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, going back to before 1994 when the Taliban wrested governance away from the corrupt leadership of post-Soviet Afghan officials.

Comparing the Taliban to al Qaeda in Iraq who were forced out of Al Anbar Province by the U.S. military working with local tribes is a non sequitur. The Taliban is made up for the most part of local Pushtun tribal fighters indigenous to the regions in which they operate. The experience in Iraq was quite different.

Considerable hand wringing has occurred over reports such as the March 26 New York Times article that said, "Support for the Taliban, as well as other militant groups, is coordinated by operatives inside the shadowy S-wing of Pakistan's spy service, the Directorate for Inter-service Intelligence." From whom else does anyone think the United States has gained intelligence that there might be "moderate" elements eligible for defection within the Taliban ranks?

There are always economic factors that plague insurgencies. They existed among the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. A program called "Resources and Population Control" was established to exploit this VC vulnerability. Local corruption, however, destroyed any possibility of success of that venture as shall similar efforts announced by President Obama as part of his supposedly new civil assistance approach in Afghanistan. What's worse than the Obama Administration willful ignorance of history leading them to "reinvent the wheel" is the slavish manner in which the military brass offers no objections.

The one Vietnam program that could be instituted in an Afghan version is the extremely successful "Phoenix Program" aimed at capturing or killing VC cadres. This deadly program was held by North Vietnamese leadership after the war as the most successful of the American efforts to disrupt Viet Cong insurgent activity. (See p. 602 of Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History.)

Obama's Afghan plan bears striking similarities to the humanitarian efforts attempted during the period of American involvement in Vietnam. Those well-meaning civil and economic programs went for naught in the end. And the amounts of money spent and personnel assigned in Vietnam were far greater than what is envisaged by President Obama for Afghanistan.

While the White House has a very experienced military and diplomatic team in General David Petraeus and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the president's inner political circle appears quite limited in its ability to process adequately the results of its own team's efforts. As a result, all action in Afghanistan is judged on the basis of how it conforms to the president's domestic political interests and not to strategic analyses of field assessments.

Al Qaeda was referred to by Barack Obama in terms that suggested it was the manipulating force behind Afghan and Pakistan Taliban activity. This misstatement was created to show a direct link between 9/11 and Obama's policy now in those countries. It seems there is a disconnection between Obama's speechwriters and NSC staffers, who know full well that the Taliban is locally larger and far more powerful in Afghanistan and Pakistan than its al Qaeda foreign guests.

The Taliban leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan has shown its operational patience. Inasmuch as President Obama already has indicated he is not committed to his announced course if it does not appear to be working, it's in the Taliban's interest to keep up steady harassment and await the breaking of Obama's will.

Barack Obama is clearly not at ease as a wartime president. He seeks to characterize all his actions, one way or another, as an exercise in international understanding even when American troops are in the midst of battles abroad. Enemies such as the Taliban sense this military timidity. How the American president reacts in this case is being watched carefully worldwide. So far the enemies of the U.S. are not in the least intimidated. But perhaps that's Barack Obama's intention!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.