Tag Archives: pakistan

President Obama, is Afghanistan more like Vietnam or Germany?

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 30, 2009, at care2.com

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When President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday evening, December 1, from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I will be looking for the President to answer specific questions I have about the United States’ conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

I would like to hear Mr. Obama state clearly the current objective.  Is it to build a modern nation in Afghanistan, create a quasi-democratic state, or simply stand a government that can police its own population and take actions that support U.S. security objectives?  Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s population live in 32,000 rural villages. Economic and political life is different there than in modern societies, and I want to see that the President’s plan does not rest on unrealistic expectations and assumptions.

President Bush’s military mission in Afghanistan was to remove the Taliban from power and stop Al Qaeda and its associates from conducting violent action against the United States.  The initial invasion succeeded in ending the Taliban national government, and the ongoing campaign has forced Al Qaeda to seek more hospitable territory elsewhere.  However, installing a democratic government with control of the entire country has proved impossible, and in the face of such difficulty, the mission has become less clear.

The most important issue in the war in Afghanistan may be its impact on Pakistan.  If any nation could be the catalyst for a WWIII scenario it is a nation with a nuclear arsenal and a violent extremist insurgency.  Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents are actively fighting against the democratic government of Pakistan and lethal bombings of civilian and military targets are becoming daily occurrences.  An all-out civil war in Pakistan would be catastrophic and could require international forces to secure nuclear weapons, at the very least.  If this is part of the calculation of continuing our military effort in neighboring Afghanistan, Mr. Obama should say so. The Bush administration played fast-and-lose with the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq, and confidence in American credibility suffered as a result.

And then there’s the Vietnam question.  Are we even capable of defeating the Taliban?

In Vietnam, we were unwilling to risk a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union and China, and yet could not defeat the North Vietnamese people without risking such an all-out superpower war.  Thus, we were in an unwinnable war with no good diplomatic solutions.

While there is no superpower behind insurgent forces in Afghanistan, there is significant support in the population and financial backing from abroad.  We have been fighting insurgents for eight years and are no closer to victory.

It is a combination of troop strength and strategy that will make or break the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.  Not just critics of the war, but top military brass, have said that a political solution is ultimately necessary.  In Iraq, an important part of the “surge” strategy was hiring the unemployed former army members and others who were fighting against us.  The concurrent increase in U.S. troops also supported government and military efforts to control violence, but the change in strategy was key. A similar initiative to pay local Talibs to switch sides is now underway in Afghanistan.

If the new strategy for Afghanistan is not producing positive results in a year or two, will the President accept defeat and withdraw our resources?  There is evidence that President Lyndon Johnson did not want to be involved in the Vietnam war and did not think it was winnable.  Yet, he continued to increase American participation based on domestic political consequences and complex international uncertainties.  However, our resources are precious and should be used with serious intentions, not squandered, or commited by default.

Will there be an honest assessment as to whether the new strategy in Afghanistan is working?  Does the President have the courage to recognize and accept failure?  It was one thing to refuse to accept defeat in a WWII.  The war against Germany and Japan saw a far greater commitment of resources and manpower.  Our entire nation was transformed into an armament factory and the committment to destroy the enemy and remake its society was total.  On the military front, we used all the force we had and accepted both our own heavy losses and devastating destruction of German and Japanese civilian targets.  Total victory was necessary and total defeat was not an option.  However, the situation in Afghanistan is not a world war.  Failure of a operation does not mean the surrender of all objectives.  Only fourteen years after South Vietnam fell to the Communist North, the Berlin Wall came down and international communism was on its way out.  (If you still have an image of Communism guiding China and Vietnam today, travel there and test your ideas.  Both nations provide thriving business environments and gradual reforms).

The lesson here is that we should not follow a failing strategy for long.  The risk of failure is substantial, and the President and his military command must be able to evaluate and change course, as necessary, including abandoning losing causes.

I will listen with an open mind to the President’s reasoning on Afghanistan.  What I hope to hear is not so much an answer that fits my preconceived notions, but an explanation of the U.S. mission there and a realistic assessment of strategy designed to achieve our goals.

For an Afghan voice and perspective (although somewhat dated), see my Interview with Massoud Quiam and Commentary by Massoud Quiam.

December 2, 2009 Update: C-Span 3 is covering live Congressional testimony of Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen on Afghanistan.

Point of contention is whether it makes sense to ramp up the battle now, while at the same time saying that we intend to start transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan authorities by mid 2011.  Is this just the usual attack on the President, or is there a contradition here?  Can we say that we are only willing to spend so much time and money (and risk to our troops) and that that time is running out — a limmited commitment — without hurting our chances of success?  It is a legitimate question, but the benefits of such a policy may still outweigh the costs.

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Changing Global Priorities

Our new foreign policy must prize cooperation over competition.

Barack Obama took office fifty-one days ago, assuming the presidency during a crucial time for American foreign policy. Instability in key areas is on the rise, and the economic contractions around the world are likely to bring unrest, violence, and change to a degree previously thought impossible.

The United States may be tempted to face the nations of the world with the same preferences and policies as before. A different party is in power now, but aside from his position on the war in Iraq, President Obama has not yet voiced foreign-policy positions that differ substantially from those of the preceding administration.

He should.

George W. Bush singled out North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as evildoers early in his presidency. He approached each nation differently, taking regime change to Iraq, sanctions to Iran, and bilateral negotiations to North Korea. Each of these nations had taken positions troubling to American interests. The Bush administration’s actions, most dramatically in Iraq, can be debated and the results evaluated for their long-term effectiveness. But in recent years, the geopolitical landscape in which those three nations stood out as dangers is all but gone.

Today Pakistan looks more precarious than Iran, Iraq, or North Korea ever could have. As Pakistan transitioned toward more democracy in October 2008, it also became less stable. It has always tolerated militants operating within its borders. Recently, a large area in the country’s northern region, known as the Swat Valley, has become a haven for Taliban, giving them opportunities to fundraise, organize, and plan operations in Afghanistan and beyond. The Pakistani government has agreed to bring the entire region under Sharia, the Islamic system of religious law, in a concession to local leaders, and officials have claimed to be negotiating with moderate elements of the populace in order to undermine radical groups.

For now, the United States must decide how to handle events in Pakistan as they affect our goals in Afghanistan. But in the long run, the United States will have to face the fact that Pakistan itself could descend into civil war, state-sanctioned radicalism, or general and indefinite instability. Pakistan is a substantial nuclear power; fringe elements of its population have already, on numerous occasions, exported terrible violence to neighboring India and Afghanistan. The danger of militant possession of nuclear weapons must be mitigated and planned for.

The U.S. has also regarded China and Russia with too much distrust. The corruption and authoritarianism of these nations runs against the fundamental principles of open, democratic society; individual liberties are compromised in both countries, and there is nothing that we would recognize as a free press. Like the United States, these nations have issues of security, but theirs are more dire and occur closer to home — China has North Korea on its border; Russia faces insurgent activity in Chechnya and Dagestan.

Now is the time for mutual cooperation and assistance. The recent skirmish between Chinese and American vessels would not have happened between friendly nations. More can be done diplomatically to find points of agreement, so that these three great powers can be allowed to focus their collective resources on international problem-solving, not rivalry.

Both China and Russia have loosely followed our free-market model, although their economies are informed by far too much authoritarian power from the state. Neither country is a threat to our national security or that of our allies, in the long run. Indeed, it seems reasonable to expect that coöperation between China, Russia, and the West will continue to bring gradual reform to those nations, as it has in the past. China’s government is far more open and its leadership far more accountable today than it was twenty years ago. The forthcoming diplomatic era must be one of accord and common ground, not withdrawal and alienation.

Richard Holbrooke Named Diplomatic Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan

 

 

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Photo of Holbrooke and Russian General by Estonian Foreign Ministry, licensed by creative commons

President Barack Obama has named senior statesman Richard Holbrooke to be the diplomatic shepherd of American foreign policy interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ambassador Holbrooke has a wealth of experience and international stature, which will serve the administration well in its effort to achieve maximum impact through renewed diplomacy.

The conflict in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year, is likely to rise in priority as the United States draws down the number of troops needed in Iraq and redeploys some of those forces to Afghanistan. The last two years have also seen a resurgence of Taliban and anti-government forces, threatening to undermine the coalition efforts to support national government authority and regional stability.  

President Obama has already begun planning for troop and supply increases to aid the coalition in Afghanistan.  Holbrooke will be deeply involved in supporting and assessing the “smart power” marriage of development, governance and cultural progress with security and offensive war-fighting operations.  

Holbrooke has extensive State Department experience in Asia and Europe, culminating in positions as Ambassador to Germany and subsequently to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton.  He promoted the expansion of NATO and its participation in the 1990s’ conflict in Bosnia. 

Recognizing, the symbolic power of American leadership was at stake in the intervention, Holbrooke stated“[this] will be the key test of American policy in Europe.  We must therefore succeed in whatever we attempt.”  He brokered the lasting peace deal in the Bosnian conflict which resulted in the Dayton accords.

In 2001, as Holbrooke left the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he said, “Iraq will be one of the major issues facing the incoming Bush administration at the United Nations.” 

Further, “Saddam Husseins activities continue to be unacceptable and, in my view, dangerous to the region and, indeed, to the world, not only because he possesses the potential for weapons of mass destruction but because of the very nature of his regime. His willingness to be cruel internally is not unique in the world, but the combination of that and his willingness to export his problems makes him a clear and present danger at all times.”  

More recently, in the face of ongoing violence in Iraq, Holbrooke called for a “new diplomatic offensive in the Gulf region to help stabilize Iraq.”

Holbrooke’s negotiating experience with parties in armed conflict may help navigate the complex issues Pakistan adds to Afghan regional security.  In the last two years, Taliban insurgents have relied on supply and manpower from neighboring Pakistan to renew and sustain offensive operations.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has had growing political instability and violence as a result of its own extremist factions. Recent terrorism in Mumbai, India, further illustrates that Pakistan is exporting terrorism beyond its borders and that the government has been unwilling or unable to effectively police insurgents.  

Holbrooke will begin intensive discussions with the recently elected leadership in Pakistan on a wide range of security issues.

Also regarded as forward-thinking, Holbrooke was among the first to focus official U.N. consideration on AIDS/HIV in African programs in 2001.  Subsequently, the Bush administration embraced a major commitment to AIDS/HIV treatment, widely regarded as one of the administration’s most successful humanitarian achievements.