Monday, October 13, 2008

Sen. Obama's foreign policy plans show great marketing prowess. But are they . . .

Trustworthy? More to the point: will in the future his foreign policy balancing act come back to haunt him and the nation?

Throughout the current presidential campaign, Sen. Obama has argued that American soldiers stationed in Iraq should be taken out of that country and moved to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is hiding and where, according to Sen. Obama's calculation, we will find the real front in the war on terror.

This leave-Iraq-move-to-Afghanistan formulation by Sen. Obama has two marketing advantages. First, it goes some distance in connecting with the strong anti-Iraq-War sentiment throughout the US. As a state senator in Illinois, Sen. Obama gave a forceful but measured speech against the war, saying, "I don't oppose all wars. I oppose dumb wars." As a result Sen. Obama has undeniable credibility when criticizing America's Iraq policy and arguing to end the war there.

But what about the second part of the marketing strategy, moving the war to Afghanistan? The second advantage that Sen. Obama's policy holds for his candidacy is that, in arguing that Afghanistan needs more troops, he is able to portray himself as not just another irresponsible, pie-in-the-sky, anti-war nut, but as a realistic leader unafraid to commit American troops to military adventures.

Let me sum it up this way: Sen. Obama gets to market himself as both anti-war (Iraq) and realistic about the need for war (Afghanistan). I don't think a candidate in either party over the last forty years has treaded this line between anti-war and pro-war as well as Barack Obama has done it in this campaign.

But, for all its brilliance as a marketing strategy, is this focus on Afghanistan brilliant policy? That is, will the marketing strategy in the future be exposed as substantively dubious? When he is president, will Sen. Obama end up regretting the formulation that is right now serving him so well as a candidate? Bush's war is Iraq, and he is losing it. As a result, he is seen as a bad president. Will Sen. Obama's presidency be similarly bet on victory in Afghanistan? It is possible, and perhaps even looking that way.

All this then raises the question: Is victory in Afghanistan even possible? There is evidence that victory in Afghanistan is even less possible than it is in Iraq. Check out the following excerpt from a report in the May 29, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books. It gives not only a chilling assessment of America's chances for winning in Afghanistan, but also a chilling assessment of the history of superpowers who even try to subdue Afghanistan. Reading it I get the sense that, for as strong a candidate as Barack Obama is, he might be in the process of painting himself into a corner in the case of war, or more specifically, in the case of having to win a war that for all purposes can't be won. Sen. Obama seems on the surface to have little or nothing in common with President Bush. That might not be totally true: both might go down in history based on whether they win an unwinnable war, Bush in Iraq and Sen. Obama in Afghanistan.

Iraq after the surge might be described as the same bomb, still waiting to explode, but with a longer fuse. What about Afghanistan? There the new president may find an even more intractable problem. In Iraq the United States is fighting an array of forces who live in the shadow of the Iranian sphere of influence, are mainly trying to kill each other, and are of two minds about American departure—some are reluctant to lose American protection, others want us to clear out so they can settle with local opponents once and for all. But in Afghanistan the United States and its reluctant NATO allies face a revived Taliban with the simplest of war aims—they want the foreigners to go. What is remarkable about the situation in Afghanistan—even astonishing—is that the Americans, after watching 100,000 Russians fight Afghans at great expense with no success for nine years, have signed on for a dose of the same. Lester Grau, a retired Army colonel, has edited three books on the Russian war using Russian materials, ranging from a general staff history of the war to small-unit combat reports.

The implication of these books is not ambiguous. After their invasion in December 1979, the Russians walked into Kabul with ease, as invaders of Afghanistan invariably do, but after that it was mounting trouble all the way. The Russians paid a substantial price for thinking they could "win" if they stuck to it—a still-hidden number of dead soldiers, probably exceeding 20,000, and perhaps five times that number of seriously wounded; loss of nearly 500 aircraft including 350 helicopters; huge quantities of other equipment destroyed; hundreds of thousands of disaffected soldiers returned to civilian life back home, not to mention the opprobrium of the world.

The CIA officer Anthony Arnold, who was stationed in Kabul before the Russian invasion, thinks the penalty of failure went beyond immediate losses and humiliation to include the actual collapse of the Soviet state itself. They were weaker than they knew, Arnold thinks, but the Russians did not give in easily: they killed more than a million Afghans, bombed villages to rubble, machine-gunned herds of sheep from the air, and drove as many as a fifth of all Afghans out of the country, across the border into the safe haven of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Nothing worked and the war ended when the last Russian troops and trucks drove back across the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan in 1989. It is true that the mujahideen got plenty of material help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, but it was the Afghans who fought the Russians to exhausted frustration, and have gone right on fighting among themselves ever since.

Shrugging off the lessons of history is the preface to disaster in Afghanistan. The Afghans seem so weak—an impoverished people living in mudbrick houses making a hardscrabble living; shepherds, farmers, and nomads answering to feudal lords ruling tiny villages connected by dirt tracks over rocky mountain passes. How tough can it be to defeat these skinny men in rags and occupy their country?

The Russians should not have been surprised by the answer. The British had already learned it the hard way before them—twice: in 1839–1842 and 1878–1880. Both efforts followed the standard pattern—easy occupation of Kabul at the outset, followed by rumbles from below and then open resistance leading to bitter fighting ending in disaster. It was the first of the British invasions that established just how bad a defeat in Afghanistan could be—an expeditionary force of 4,500, trying to escape Kabul, was attacked relentlessly on its way south to Jalalabad. Only one man survived—the Army surgeon William Brydon. It is such object lessons that were ignored by the Russians and are now being ignored by the Americans.

Read the whole NY Review article here.

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