At Large

Afghan Proving Ground

In that double-dealing way of his, President Obama flip-flops on troop reinforcement and targets Karzai as the next Diem.

By 3.6.09

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There has been a substantial disconnect between the pre-inaugural Obama position on Afghanistan troop reinforcement and now. After the election, and in consultation with the Obama transition team, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, announced that he expected U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan could reach 60,000 by summer '09.

Admiral Mullen was responding to the stated desire of the then president-elect to militarily focus on that country immediately after taking office. Recent Obama Administration orders do not jibe with this original figure or the professed need, as set forth consistently by Defense Secretary Gates, to have reinforcements of scale in place to counter the expected Taliban spring offensive.

With considerable press coverage President Obama announced 17,000 additional Marine and Army personnel would be sent to Afghanistan to boost the now 30,000 plus troops currently in-country. The problem is that of these new forces only 12,000 are combat infantry (8,000 Marines, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and 4,000 soldiers, 5th Brigade [Stryker] of 2nd Inf. Div.; the 5,000 additional are support troops). None of these reinforcements will be fully available this spring as they have to be transported, acclimatized, and field integrated.

Obama certainly shifted his position quickly on reinforcing the American contingent in Afghanistan, even though the U.S. field commander, General McKiernan, had already requested a minimum of 30,000 additional combat troops to prepare a proper defense against the expected heavy Taliban attacks in the spring and summer. So much for the Obama commitment to transfer the battle focus to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile President Hamid Karzai has called for national elections three months earlier than the August 20th date projected by the White House. It is obvious that Karzai does not trust the Obama Administration to work to preserve his leadership and intends by pushing forward the election to gain a march on his political opponents.

Unfortunately the Obama brain trust has been fixated on the repeated reports of corruption during the Karzai regime. For some reason the justification that appears to apply in Chicago does not fit the bill for Afghanistan. The fact is that the ability to run the central government in Kabul and the provincial governments throughout the rest of the nation is directly tied to the dispensing of largesse -- no matter who runs Afghanistan.

As has been stated so often in the past, Afghanistan is a feudal tribal society: to govern it takes an ability to manipulate the varying traditional forces at play. Hamid Karzai was favored by the U.S. originally because he knew well how to do this and also was from an important Pushtun family. Nonetheless, Barack Obama had made up his mind against the Bush-chosen Afghan leader even before the November election. That's why the new American president left his Afghan counterpart waiting for weeks before making a personal call to him.

While Barack Obama wants to prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and returning it as an al Qaeda base, he is under the impression that this can be accomplished by minimalized military force and a greater commitment to development and technical assistance. Essentially he is attempting to overlay his own experiences as a community organizer on this arcane Islamic tribal world.

The Obama strategy has been based on a view that it is the "lawless tribal areas" of the mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan that are the sole Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries. This is only partially correct in respect to geographical targeting and completely misleading as to terminology. The so-called "lawless" mountain tribal areas are actually well regulated by laws, usually harsh sharia-based laws not necessarily consistent with Western concepts.

At the same time many tribal groupings are willing to accept governance by distant authority as long as that body provides material advantages and does not seek to supplant the basic tribal code. It is at this point that Kabul and the Taliban compete. Karzai may not be the only Afghan capable of leading his country, but he understands and accepts the tribal ethos: Obama does not.

President Obama appears to believe it's a socio-economic battle for hearts and minds and is unable to understand that Afghan traditional culture accepts the simple physical premise of rule by the strongest. He is far more at ease with European intellectual concepts than Third World life and death struggles.

The additional problem that Obama foreign policy and defense practitioners have is that the new administration wants to establish its own political military credibility while eschewing military force and not accepting anything that can be related to the previous administration. Afghanistan is where Barack Obama has planted his flag and now he is stuck with it.

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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.