Barack Obama presidency’s foreign policy energy has now been consumed by an Afghanistan war initiated by his predecessor, but slowly moulded into an almost entirely different “nation building” purpose. It would be a major irony if, in the 2012 general election campaign with a Republican opponent, foreign policy debates focus on Afghanistan. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.
There is an old vaudeville routine in which a man is on trial for the double axe murder of his parents. He’s a lawyer himself and because he could find no one to defend him in his trial, he has been conducting his own defence. Things are not been going well and so he turns to the judge and then to the jury and implores them: “Take pity upon a poor orphan.” Va-da-boom! – and thus the classic definition of chutzpah.
This old chestnut comes to mind when reading news reports that say not only has the American public lost faith – or interest – in the Afghan War, but that Republican presidential nomination candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have said it is past time to withdraw from this conflict. Mitt Romney continues to say, however, that he remains an agnostic on Afghanistan and that he would look to the generals for guidance. All of this from leading Republicans – the very gang that cheered America’s intervention into that mountainous landscape 11 years earlier. Sheer chutzpah to bait and switch like this now that they’ve read the polls?
On Monday, appearing on NBC’s Today show, Santorum said one option for the US was to leave the country even sooner than in the timeline already set out by the Obama administration that turns the whole thing over to Afghan forces by 2014. Santorum said “We have to either make the decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out, and probably get out sooner.” And a day earlier, on Sunday’s Face the Nation broadcast, Gingrich declared in even more direct terms that it was time to leave the country.
Gingrich said, “We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive. We’re not prepared to be ruthless enough to force them to change. And yet we are clearly an alien presence.” Later that same day, Gingrich told another programme that he feared America’s Afghan mission was one “that we’re going to discover is not doable.” Gingrich and Santorum’s comments came just after the news broke of a massacre of 16 Afghans by an American soldier.
Tufts University professor of international politics Daniel Dresdner notes there is growing public opposition to a conflict that had once been labelled “the good war”. Drezner said “There’s no question that there has been a rising tide of, ‘Why are we in this conflict now’. And so as much as Republicans might want to sound hawkish, it’s tough to sound hawkish on a conflict where your rationale for being there has evaporated.”
He added that while conservative Republican primary voters might heretofore have believed the US needed to fight on until victory, even among those voters, support has dwindled. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll – conducted after the Quran burning incident but before the recent shootings – says Republicans are now evenly split over whether this war is “worth fighting” – a major decline from four years before. Nationally, moreover, 60% said the war has not been worth fighting. Only 28% of Democrats — and 33% of independents — now believe the war has been worth fighting.
For the Afghans at least, things seem now to have come to that figurative boil with the purposeless massacre of 16 civilian Afghans, coming after the American forces burned copies of the Quran left in rubbish dumps for some unfathomable reason. In response to the news of the latest death toll, there have been entirely predictable demonstrations and angry protests, as well as threats of retaliatory killings and actual live fire aimed at Afghani central government officials visiting the southern part of the country. Meanwhile, a long-planned visit to Afghanistan by defence secretary Leon Panetta had to contend with a car bomb on the airport runway that his military plane was using.
Although Panetta said the shooting spree should not derail the American and Nato strategy of a withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014, it has just as clearly soured further relations with war-weary Afghans, even as it has also jeopardised the US strategy of working closely with Afghan forces so they can take over their country’s security. After the incident, the Afghan defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak called the killings “deplorable” although he added Afghanistan needs to recall the bigger issues at stake, presumably a reference to fears the Taliban could capitalise on a precipitous foreign withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Obama pledged the US would carry out a full investigation into the shootings, saying, “The United States takes this as seriously as if this was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered.” But maybe, from this incident, the tissue of relations has been torn too much.
And of course all of this has come to pass right in the middle of a US presidential campaign and after a US governmental pledge to be out of the country by 2014. And, with it, the polling data that says Americans have come to have major doubts about a war that helped define and then warp the presidency of George W Bush – and has continued on through the entire term of Barack Obama that began in 2009.
How has it come to this? The US first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, following the September 11 attacks, in response to the Taliban’s sheltering of al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden, the master planner of the 9/11 attacks. Of course, previously, the Taliban had been effectively allied with efforts to remove the Soviet Union’s forces in Afghanistan.
After the initial entry into Afghanistan, the Taliban was routed by the Northern Alliance that was effectively transformed into a new Afghan government under Hamid Karzai, now supported by US and other Western forces. But Taliban forces substantially regrouped in 2005-6 and in the wake of substantial weakening of the central government, after a strenuous debate inside his government, Obama decided to ramp up US involvement in the war after he became president. At that time, Obama said the goal was to reverse Taliban gains and then to “disrupt, defeat and dismantle” al-Qaeda and its allies, the Taliban.
Since the initial entry of US forces into this theatre of action, 1,796 US troops have died in Afghanistan and more than 15,000 have been wounded. Naturally, too, many more Afghans than that have died or been hurt in this conflict, in addition to all those others who were casualties in the generation before the US’ entry into the fighting there.
There are now some 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan, but Obama has pledged to withdraw 23,000 troops by the end of summer 2012 and virtually all combat troops by the end of 2014 in the handoff of security responsibilities to the Afghans. However, this Afghan government has yet to gain serious control throughout the country and it is almost entirely funded by foreign donors – mostly the US. To those with longer memories this has an uncomfortable resemblance to the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s.
Most observers charge Hamid Karzai’s government is riddled with corruption – and local commanders and traditional strongmen hold more sway than decisions emanating from the capital. In a good chunk of the southern part of Afghanistan, Taliban commanders operate a shadow government that tries to operate beyond the writ of the government in Kabul.
And so, since 2001, the US has endured slow, incremental mission creep, moving well beyond punishing al-Qaeda for attacks in the US. In the ensuing years, the American effort turned away from dealing with al-Qaeda – a force now largely pushed from Afghanistan and into Pakistan – and on to preventing a revival of Islamist extremist forces in the foreseeable future. As a result, the war has dragged on despite Osama bin Laden’s demise in Pakistan in May 2011 and the thorough disruption of his networks. The mission has now has morphed into building the kind of capacity in the Afghan government that it could stand against a future insurgent threat when the withdrawal of foreign forces comes in 2014.
Simultaneously, the US has also reached out to the Taliban with hopes of negotiating a peace settlement that would ultimately bring them inside the Afghan tent and encourage them to break off contact with al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, most analysts remain doubtful either of these goals will be successful in the long-term. With relations with the Afghan government and people severely strained from the Quran burning incident and the most recent massacre, the prospects for a sustained, successful campaign to tamp down the insurgency and nurture a grand, reasonably peaceful coalition of groups throughout the country seemingly become increasingly slender.
It is notable how much of the Obama presidency’s foreign policy energy has now been consumed by an Afghanistan war initiated by his predecessor for understandable reasons following 9/11, but slowly moulded into an almost entirely different “nation building” purpose. It would be a major irony if, in the 2012 general election campaign with a Republican opponent – any opponent – foreign policy debates focus on Afghanistan, in addition to the Iran/Israel imbroglio and Iraq’s future, especially now that the US population has decided Afghanistan is no longer worth the candle.
And the deeper irony, of course, is that Obama who ran for president on a platform of getting out of Iraq and winding down the Afghan war; but who then had to focus nearly 24/7/365 on the financial crisis. As Time magazine commented, “President Barack Obama is getting another dose of the reality of his job: the out-of-his-control events that shape whether he will keep it. He is lobbying Israel not to launch on attack on Iran that could set the Middle East on fire and pull the United States into another war. He is struggling to get world powers to unite on halting a massacre in Syria. He is on the defensive about staying in Afghanistan after a US soldier allegedly went on a killing spree against civilians.” Meanwhile, even as the economy seems to be – finally – on a slow upward trajectory, the price of gasoline (petrol) is on everyone’s lips and focusing all attention on the fuel pump. DM
Photo: An Afghan man reacts during a ceremony at a mosque where an Afghan delegation meets with locals in Kandahar province on 13 March 2012. Suspected insurgents opened fire on Tuesday on senior Afghan investigators of the massacre of 16 civilians by a lone U.S. soldier, Afghan officials said, just hours after the Taliban threatened to behead American troops to avenge the killings. REUTERS/ Ahmad Nadeem.
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