Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Short[er] Follow-Up On Afghanistan

I have a feeling that my last post on Afghanistan was a bit too long (and turgid) for most readers to wade through. I'm sorry about that, because I was really proud of it. I thought I did a pretty good job of tying together the history of the region and the current situation. If you have the time, I do hope you will read what I had to say.

My bottom line: I think that the US should continue its military operations in Afghanistan. My view is that US military operations in Afghanistan are necessary but not sufficient to bring about a resolution of the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Real long-term peace and stability, however, also requires a greater diplomatic effort by the US to involve the regional powers - India, China, Iran and Russia - in bringing about a resolution of the conflicts.

Here's the clincher on why I think we can't withdraw from Afghanistan anytime soon. Thomas Friedman had a column in today's New York Times proposing that the US begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. You can become pretty much of a foreign policy wizard simply by coming out in favor of the opposite of whatever Thomas Friedman proposes. The man's judgment (or lack thereof) is flawless - he is the George Costanza of pundits. President Obama should give Friedman a big office in the White House so that he can get his opinion on all major issues - and then do the opposite.

The New York Times does have a columnist who really knows what he is talking about on international affairs, Roger Cohen, but unfortunately you can generally only find him online and not in the print edition. Cohen's writings about Afghanistan have been right on the mark.

Someone with whom I don't usually agree, Henry Kissinger, has also written some very sensible stuff about Afghanistan. Consistent with what I suggested in my earlier post, Kissinger sees the involvement of the regional powers as essential to any resolution of the Afghanistan/Pakistan conflict.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that the involvement of the regional powers need not be military in nature; getting them involved economically in Afghanistan is even more important. Military strategist Robert Kaplan pointed out in a recent Times op-ed piece that Chinese companies have been seeking to develop mineral resources in Afghanistan.
Kaplan worries that this will lead to an enhancement of the Chinese "strategic" position in the world and a concomitant decline in the status of the American "empire" - he fears that the Chinese will drink America's milkshake. Nevertheless, Kaplan concedes that Chinese investment in Afghanistan will produce jobs for Afghans in industries other than growing opium poppies, as well as the development of infrastructure such as roads and pipelines running through Afghanistan connecting China to the Indian Ocean. Obviously, economic development in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on the planet, is the only thing that will ultimately bring peace. None of this economic development, however, can take place without some level of security. Chinese companies are not going to build roads and pipelines and set up mining operations if radical extremists in the Taliban and al Qaeda are going to blow them up and take Chinese business executives hostage. This is the positive, and necessary, contribution that can be made by continuing US military involvement in Afghanistan.

This is what globalization is all about, and it is the reason why Kaplan's concern obout the Chinese "strategic" position is so misplaced. If we think of US military endeavors in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world as being driven by a desire to promote the "American Empire", then I will be the first one on the picket lines cheering for our failure. Imperialism and colonialism in any form, American or otherwise, are the great enemies of globalization. Multilateralism is the antidote. That's what FDR's "New Deal for the world" was all about, and as I have previously written, that is the essence of my ideal of "liberal patriotism".

So here, in a more abbreviated nutshell than I was able to set forth in my previous post, is my program for what I think President Obama should do in Afghanistan:

1. As I did emphasize in my previous post, Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state, and the Pashtun are the largest ethnic group. The Pashtun are divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan (a legacy of British colonialism) and the Taliban, operating in both countries, is today probably the best organized force among the Pashtun. No resolution of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be achieved without the participation of the Pashtun, and that probably means the participation of at least some of the elements currently supporting the Taliban.

2. Right now, negotiation with the Taliban is impossible. The Taliban think they are winning. They think that the US has "post-Vietnam syndrome" and that popular opinion will force an immediate withdrawal of US forces. When you read stuff like Friedman's column today - which is rapidly becoming the "conventional wisdom" about Afghanistan - it is hard to disagree with that assessment. Moreover, the Taliban knows that once the US leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban will be able to resume its cozy relationship with the Pakistani military, as had been the case prior to 9/11. Accordingly, the leading forces among the Pashtun currently have no incentive to enter into negotiations towards a resolution of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, as long as the Taliban thinks that it is going to win the conflict, it has no incentive to sever its ties with al Qaeda.

3. Therefore, it is essential that the US send the message that we are not leaving. This message needs to be heard loud and clear by the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Pakistani military, and all other factions in Afghanistan. I cannot think of a better way of sending this message than with the announcement of an increase in US troop levels. This is the only way of driving a wedge into the leadership of the Pashtun, and isolating Taliban extremists from other Pashtun tribal leaders. And, establishing a meaningful Pashtun leadership independent of Taliban extremists is the only way of resolving the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

4. Simultaneous with announcing an increase in US troop levels, President Obama should announce a major diplomatic initiative among all regional powers to propose a long-term resolution of the conflict. This initiative could take the form of a multinational peace conference to propose steps towards achieving long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ideally, President Obama should announce all of this - the increase in US troop levels as well as the new diplomatic initiative - at a press conference surrounded by representatives not just of NATO and Pakistan, but also of India, China, Russia, Iran and possibly Turkey.

5. The multinational conference of regional powers would then propose a cease fire in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, to be followed by negotiations for the formation of a coalition government in Afghanistan. All factions in Afghanistan, potentially including the Taliban, would be invited to participate in these negotiations, provided that (1) they abide by the cease fire, and (2) they sever all ties with al Qaeda. A multinational peacekeeping force would enforce the terms of the cease fire.

I think it has a shot at working. My basic theme: we can't walk away, but we can't do it alone. I think President Obama is on the same wavelength.