Monday, November 30, 2009
A Little Rant Before the Big Speech
The theme of Karzai as an corrupt and ineffective leader promises to be highlighted in President Obama's address tomorrow. The line the White House is floating tonight is, "The era of the blank check for President Karzai is over." That is simply untrue, the first steps across a politically impossible tightrope. Tomorrow Obama will be making the case that this is a war of military necessity, with dire national security at stake. I disagree with him of course, but that's his pitch. He will then also try to warn Karzai that he needs to reform "or else." The real question, columnist David Corn asks, is "or else what?" If Obama is suggesting that he will withdraw troops, cut off funding for training Afghans or stop spending money on Afghan infrastructure, then the war can't possibly be as serious or necessary as he says it is, because Obama cannot stabilize Afghanistan while he does those things. That is why Obama is painting himself into such a dangerous corner.
Let's play this one out. It is December of 2011. Karzai has made little to no headway on the anti-corruption front. Every last member of Al-Qaeda is in the mountains of Pakistan. The Taliban have largely been routed by NATO troops, but in limited skirmishes the Afghan National Army seems unable to handle them without NATO support. Both supporters and opponents of the war can agree that this is a fairly plausible set of outcomes. Does that mean we can leave?
If we start drawing down, the Taliban will start fighting back. Maybe they'll take a few villages here and there, maybe mount an unsuccessful assault on a major city. Al-Qaeda hangs out on the Afghan-Pakistan border, depending on which side is being more aggressive. People still hate Karzai. His brother is still the biggest opium dealer in the country. A suicide bomb periodically blows up a Kabul market square. Do we keep drawing down? Do we re-surge? Do we keep troop levels the same? Where do we get these troops in the first place? Now it's 2012 and Republicans are running on the platform that Obama has lost Afghanistan.
You see, the situation in Afghanistan has always been fucked. It is a country where multiple generations have come of age knowing nothing but war and corruption. It is also a country with almost no infrastructure, limited roads, and a brutal winter that shuts large swaths of the country down for months. It is a country where we prop an anti-democratic corrupt figurehead surrounded by brutal warlords so that the country isn't overtaken by ruthless fundamentalist ruthless warlords. And we are in this country because it might potentially serve as a haven for a bunch of men in caves plotting terrorist strikes against the United States. I find it incredibly hard to believe that the leaders of Al Qaeda could not find another place in South Asia, the Middle East or Africa to sit on rugs and conjure up plots, if we were somehow able to make an impassible mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan more inhospitable for them than it is now (And while we're at it, let's please stop with the nonsense that Pakistan may become so destabilized by these fundamentalist hicks that they will lose control of their nuclear weapons, which will then be launched against the United States, or India, or Israel).
So what do I think we should do? I think we should get out, leaving behind some residual force in Kabul. We should keep funding local programs to develop Afghan infrastructure. We should continue intelligence operations and drone attacks against members of Al Qaeda in the mountains, however regretful due to the resulting civilian casualties. Instead of believing that any single political entity will ever control Afghanistan, we should cut deals with a series of regional governors and warlords rewarding them for cooperation against Al Qaeda. If the Taliban start to overrun the Karzai government, we should make it clear that any indication that they have allowed for Al Qaeda to reestablish themselves within Afghan borders will lead to a reprise of 2001's Operation Infinite Justice. Sure, it would be exhausting and expensive for us to pull that off, but having been driven from power once, do you think the Taliban will risk their power a second time to protect some Saudis and Egyptians who have brought them nothing but trouble this decade?
Of course, tomorrow night Obama will announce precisely the opposite of what I just suggested. He will use well worn cliches from the Bush administration, comforting Americans who don't want to think too deeply about this war. And to the 50% of Americans who oppose escalation, he will offer us the following, charming bit of reassurance:
"My fellow Americans, we will set certain benchmarks for 2011/2012, and then, having achieved them, we will withdraw."
The problem is, we won't meet them then, just like we've failed to meet almost every benchmark we've ever set in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then we'll be back here in two years, to hear President Obama once again call for patience, while Republicans gloat about what a failure he is, and what a better job they would have done sending more of our overburdened, exhausted, stressed out troops for a fifth and sixth deployments.
Scary times, folks. I'll be in Times Square at 6pm on Wednesday for the protest. See you there.