Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where Obama is wrong

Although I could not be happier with what I've seen from the incoming Obama administration, there is one notable area where I believe Obama to be wrong. His announced policy is to increase American troop strength in Afghanistan. In the short run, that may be indicated, but troop reinforcements can be at most a stop-gap.

Rory Stewart, a former British foreign service officer, had a piece in The Times pointing out that security in the country has deteriorated as the western military presence has grown. By itself, those facts do not prove much; the need for more troops could represent the reaction to a deteriorating security situation. What caught me about Stewart's argument, however, was this:
By 2004, Afghanistan had a stable currency, millions more children in school, a better health system, an elected Parliament, no Al Qaeda and almost no Taliban. All this was achieved with only 20,000 troops and a relatively small international aid budget.
This still does not work as proof that the resurgence of the Taliban has been related to the increase in NATO forces, but it does underscore some important and, I believe, undisputed facts. One is that insurgencies such as that faced in Afghanistan are not defeated by military means. The second is that Afghans traditionally resent--deeply--the presence of foreign troops. Indeed, this writer was one of the few who worried aloud at the wisdom of invading Afghanistan in 2001, for that very reason. While I have seen indications that some Afghans are willing to accept a foreign presence for a limited time, we should not read too much into that. There have always been those willing to cooperate--or collaborate--with invaders. We cannot count on such allies to win the day.

To prevail in Afghanistan, we need a much more broad-front strategy than we have seen to date. We need much more reconstruction: the building of roads and schools and hospitals, as well as programs to encourage economic development controlled by Afghans. We also need to deal with the production of opium poppies in a more creative way--although reports indicate that the production of poppies is way down in some areas under government control. For those parts of the country that are not in safe hands, we need ways at least to reduce the flow of drug cash into the hands of the enemy.

Why, for instance, have we not considered buying the crop, in the fields (to keep farmers from delivering adulterated product and selling to both sides)? This would not be a voluntary program; farmers who refuse to cooperate would suffer serious penalties--perhaps the destruction of their crop. But it should be accompanied by measures to induce the growers to switch to other crops; the farmers must know that they are selling poison; the opportunity to grow a profitable foodstuff should be attractive.

We must also be more politically adept. We must look for opportunities to split off and co-opt some of the Taliban's allies. Indeed, according to the BBC, the refer to the Taliban as if the insurgency were a unified force is to commit a major blunder.

And, finally, we must realize that while western force might--might--keep our enemies from taking Kabul, we "win" the war (which means reducing the Taliban and its allies to a minor factor) only through the efforts of the Afghans themselves. They are the ones who will have to construct an answer to fundamentalist Islam. That is not impossible--Afghans have a history of moderation in their religion. But it will require a change in political culture--patriotism or some other motive that can banish the incompetence, cupidity and corruption that afflict the Karzai regime. That will be a tall order, and results from other countries--Vietnam comes to mind--does not inspire confidence. But a Western strategy that is not premised mainly on local political leadership is bound to fail.

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