Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Expansion of Conflict in Afghanistan


The drumbeat of war emanating from Washington is not the deafening booms of a thousand timpani which led President Bush to invade Iraq, but the likelihood of expanding the war in Afghanistan sounds a bit like a smooth jazz rhythm -- cool and nuanced, a bit like the new president.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified to the Senate Armed Service Committee yesterday about the need to add 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan within the next few months. On Friday, reports surfaced that President Obama ordered military drones to bomb Taliban extremists in northwestern Pakistan; the attack killed 22. Gates also reiterated the Status of Force Agreement signed by the United States and Iraq in June, which will leave Iraq bare of American troops by 2011.

The Obama administration's call for an expansion of involvement in Afghanistan comes as no surprise, despite calling the war in Iraq the wrong war. Throughout Obama's presidential campaign he was the only candidate who focused on Pakistan -- Afghanistan's neighbor to the south and enabler of the Taliban in the Waziristan region. Americans may have inadvertently bundled both conflicts into one and find the decision to send more troops to the regions a bit contradictory. But, isn't this what many liberal critics have always said about Bush's follies in the Middle East: The war in Afghanistan was justified, the war in Iraq was not. But the situation today is vastly different than 2002.

Noted Middle East expert Juan Cole says that a returning focus to Afghanistan could make it "Obama's Vietnam," meaning "Obama may be falling into the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam trap, of escalating a predecessor's halfhearted war into a major quagmire." Cole sees the recent attack on Pakistan without prior interaction with the government as a "bad sign."

It is not clear if Obama really believes that the fractious tribes of the Pakistani northwest can be subdued with some airstrikes and if he really believes that U.S. security depends on what happens in Waziristan. If he thinks the drone attacks on FATA are a painless way to signal to the world that he is no wimp, he may find, as Lyndon Johnson did, that such military operations take on a momentum of their own, and produce popular discontents that can prove deadly to the military mission.

Much of the conflict in Afghanistan is invariably intertwined with Pakistan and, to some extent, Iran. As William Dalrymple writes in a New York Review of Books article on author Ahmed Rashid's new book, Descent into Chaos, the Pakistani intelligence apparatus has a history of encouraging the Taliban in Afghanistan as a friendly bulwark against India, yet this association flies against its own self-interests.

It is for this reason that many in the [Pakistani] army still believe that the jihadis make up a more practical defense against Indian dominance than even nuclear weapons. For them, supporting a range of jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir is not an ideological or religious whim so much as a practical and patriotic imperative -- a vital survival strategy for a Pakistani state that they perceive to be threatened by India's ever-growing power and its alliance with the hostile Karzai regime in Kabul.

The Obama administration seems bent on resolving Afghanistan through Pakistan. This could take years, though. With a swift change in course comes apprehension for Americans weary of seven years of conflict. Out of that comes a question: Will Afghanistan threaten to gobble up the next four years like Iraq destroyed the Bush presidency?

--Steven Tavares

Is Afghanistan likely to become to Obama what Vietnam was to Johnson or Iraq to Bush? Is escalation in Afghanistan the right move? Did it work in Iraq? Leave a comment and join the discussion!


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