At Large

Obama’s War

He wanted it -- but how can it not become his Vietnam?

By 11.14.08

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Among the many things President-elect Barack Obama will have to address is that Afghanistan, his preferred war site, is going to cause far more trouble for his administration than he has been willing, or able, to recognize.

Obama's military analysis in July that the United States might have to commit "at least an additional two combat brigades" is supported by September's projection of two or three additional brigades by the commander of the NATO-led international force, Gen. David McKiernan The numbers are a bit confusing because McKiernan was talking about U.S. troops in excess of the 3,700 members of the 10th Mountain Division whose ETA is January '09. Current figures of U.S. troops in-country is 33,000.

The operational reason for this increase primarily has been the need for reinforcement of American military activity against Taliban elements operating in the south and east. Secondarily the objective will be to assign additional American units to the job of field training Afghan Army strike forces. There are 68,000 members of the Afghan Army currently, with an increase to 80,000 to 140,000 expected as the first phase of build-up.

President-elect Obama is counting on the success of this eventual buildup of the Afghan Army to the point of being able to take over the entire job of counter-insurgency nationwide. NATO military planners are reported to have estimated that such an effort would require a 400,000 to 600,000 soldier Afghan Army. One wonders whether Obama and his staff have done the math on that plan.

So far President-elect Obama has ignored the blunt statement of Britain's field commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who in early October said, "We are not going to win this war." What Carleton-Smith followed with, however, would fit into Obama's wishful thinking about the future of the fight against the Taliban. "…It's about reducing [the war] to the manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan Army."

In other words, the NATO forces led by the Americans aided by elite British and Canadian units would reduce the Taliban operations to a "manageable level" and then hand things over to the Afghans. Sounds good, but reality in the field indicates that arriving at that "manageable level" would require a multifold increase in American, British, and other forces, which is just not in the political economic cards.

Obama is all for the idea of negotiating with the Taliban. But there is no need for these Islamic fighters to negotiate when they do not feel pressed militarily to do so. Large parts of the south and east of Afghanistan are for all intents under Taliban control. When American ground forces, aided by air assets, strike Taliban mountain encampments, they are forced to attack the villages in which the fighters hide. Orchestrated political uproar ensues.

When such attacks hit Pashtun tribal areas, the reverberations are felt all the way to Kabul. President Hamid Karzai , a leading Pashtun, himself, is forced to be vigorously indignant, and the NATO command once again apologizes. Other than suggesting a campaign to divide cooperative Taliban from hard core, how President-elect Obama intends to break this cycle has never been explained. He is consistent, however, on the matter outlined by Brigadier Carleton-Smith of getting the war to the point of being "manageable" so as to have the Afghan Army take over. That's not a strategy; it's a prayer.

The problems of Afghanistan certainly are far too complex to be solved by the limited military means available. That's the real reason behind the British commander's statement. And, tragically, so is the expectation of democracy breaking out in this legendary land. Even now the plans for next year's elections are threatening to dissolve. With the south and east Pashtun tribal areas effectively blocked off from participating, President Karzai is deeply worried that elections will result in pushing him out of office.

Karzai would like the traditional Afghan method of choosing leadership to be used. This would call for a massive council of elders (loya jirga) where political favors can be negotiated and leaders settled on. Hamid Karzai sees this form of "representative democracy" far more advantageous to him than leaving the vote up to general elections. And he may be right. Obama will have to deal with this ticklish political problem immediately upon entering office.

Barack Obama from the outset has tried to shift U.S. strategic focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. For some rather simplistic reason he thought there was greater legitimacy, and thus justification, for American military forces to be involved in the latter country. For Obama the fight to rid Afghanistan of the religiously tyrannical Taliban movement that has supported Osama bin Laden was righteous -- as opposed to freeing Iraq from the proven genocidal grasp of Saddam Hussein.

At this stage of affairs the mountainous Afghan border with Pakistan is purely a theoretical divider. Any military effort to counter the Taliban as well as drive Al Qaeda from the Afghan side therefore is made ineffectual by the Pakistani sanctuary. The key is Pakistan, and getting its effective support has been the principal American target for the last seven years. In other words, Barack Obama's approach to Afghanistan sounds good but recognizes none of the complexity endemic to the problem.

It may not be Obama's creation, but it is his chosen war. Welcome to the real world of international security, Mr. President-elect!

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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.