LONDON — President Barack Obama has just promised not to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan or pull them out entirely as part of the current review of U.S. strategy there, but he has not promised to increase them. Could he privately be having second thoughts about the whole war?
“The maximum estimate is less than a hundred (al-Qaida members) operating in (Afghanistan), no bases, no ability to launch attacks on us or our allies,” said President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, in an interview on CNN last week. In that case, why does the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, want another 40,000 troops?
The Washington orthodoxy insists that there is essentially no difference between al-Qaida, the mostly Arab organization that ordered the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and the Taliban, the local Islamist extremists who controlled most of Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion in 2001 and allowed al-Qaida to have camps there. If the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan, al-Qaida would be back like a shot.
But hang on. For all practical purposes, the Taliban already control at least a third of Afghanistan’s territory. Yet Gen. Jones says there are fewer than 100 al-Qaida operatives in the country.
Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, and several other countries each have more al-Qaida members than that on their territory. Al-Qaida doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much from those countries, either. So, why is controlling political outcomes in Afghanistan crucial to American security?
That question may finally be getting posed by the Obama administration. After the shameless rigging of the recent Afghan election by President Hamid Karzai, the U.S. no longer has a credible partner in Kabul. So the current review of U.S. strategy, which until recently was mainly a debate about how much to escalate, is taking on a broader focus.
Last week, Gen. McChrystal again tried to pre-empt Obama’s decision, insisting that more troops are needed in Afghanistan in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and in an interview on the TV current affairs show “60 Minutes.” But this time Defense Secretary Robert Gates rebuked him, saying that “all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike,” should “provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately.”
Most of the European NATO countries, who still provide almost half the troops in Afghanistan, have grown disenchanted with the mission. Canada, which has lost a higher proportion of troops committed there than anybody else, is bringing its army home in less than two years. Only 26 percent of Americans believe that more troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and support for the war in Congress is fading.
This is Obama’s last and best opportunity to escape from the futile war he inherited on taking office. In practical terms, how could he go about it without suffering too great a level of political damage domestically? And how can he avoid what happened in Vietnam, where two-thirds of American casualties were incurred during the five-year search for a way to leave without losing face — after the U.S. had already decided to leave?
The first steps are to reject Gen. McChrystal’s demand for more troops, and to make U.S. displeasure at Karzai’s theft of the Afghan election public. Rather than being embarrassed by the revelations of Peter Galbraith, the American deputy head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who was fired last week for protesting against U.N. complicity in the electoral fraud, the Obama administration should defend him.
Indeed, Washington ought to attack the head of the U.N. mission in Kabul, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon himself for their cynical attempt to suppress the truth. Attacking the United Nations has always been a popular pastime in the U.S., and it would totally wrong-foot the Republicans.
Yes, I know the Obama administration probably gave its blessing to the removal of Galbraith a few weeks ago, when it was still trying to whitewash the Afghan election. But when a government changes course, it often has to deny its past policies — and though the U.N. officials would be very resentful, they wouldn’t spill the beans on what really happened.
Those are just the first steps, of course. The longer-term strategy must focus on dismantling the misleading narrative that is used to justify the war in Afghanistan, and indeed the whole “global war on terror.” Washington is full of senior intelligence officials, and senior military officers whose careers have not become indissolubly linked to the GWOT, who would be delighted to assist Obama in that task. Turn them loose.
Meanwhile, start putting together an alliance of non-Pashtun warlords who can make a deal with the Taliban on the division of power in Afghanistan. The Taliban will end up controlling the Pashtun-majority south and east, of course — but for most practical purposes they already do. It doesn’t mean that al-Qaida gets its training camps back, or becomes any more dangerous to the U.S. than it is now.
Go down that road, and with a little luck all the U.S. troops could be out of Afghanistan before Obama has to face the voters again. But first he has to choose the right road.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.