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You can almost hear Washington’s tectonic plates shifting


Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a famous Johannesburg theatre and remains on its board, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Post-retirement, Spector has also been a Bradlow Fellow of the SA Institute of International Affairs and a Writing Fellow of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Only half humourously, he says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's increasingly cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music, and a dish of soto ayam (one of Indonesia's great culinary discoveries) will bring him close to tears.

The American war in Afghanistan has been going on for eight years. The consensus that labelled this war the “essential war” is beginning to crumble, most notably with The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s demurrer and US vice president Joe Biden’s view that Pakistan is the real battle, not Afghanistan.

Tom Friedman is one of America’s most successful and influential columnists. His writing is a keystone of The New York Times’ op-ed pages, as well as other newspapers around the world. He is a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner for his commentary as well as the author of numerous bestsellers on the new international political economy such as “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”, “The World is Flat”, “From Beirut to Jerusalem” and “Longitudes and Attitudes”.

Unlike many other opinion writers, Friedman travels continually and he can often be found right at the “coal face” – whether it is with Arabs and Jews at the wall dividing the West Bank from Israel, in the bullpens of new IT firms in Bangalore, India, or in the slums of Latin America. Friedman is a confidante of politicians and government leaders around the world, as well as of high-tech start-up entrepreneurs, investment managers and all those deep thinkers he is fond of quoting. Although his writing infuriates people on both sides of an issue, Friedman is a crisp, cogent public speaker who is unafraid of staking out a controversial position in public.

Way back in 2001, immediately after 9/11, Friedman came out guns blazing – a vociferous, influential advocate of dealing aggressively with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, precisely because he was so attuned to the power of ideas in international affairs. Friedman clearly saw the appeal of al-Qaeda for many in the Islamic world, and he was anxious to see this movement thwarted. To Friedman, its ideas were wrong and profoundly anti-modernist.

All the more reason, then, that his column in Wednesday’s The New York Times may become a watershed moment in the American debate about the war in Afghanistan, the problems in Pakistan and the continuing American military presence in Iraq.  Friedman has made his U-turn. As he sees it now:

“It is crunch time on Afghanistan, so here’s my vote: We need to be thinking about how to reduce our footprint and our goals there in a responsible way, not dig in deeper. We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the Nato allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan.

“What if we shrink our presence in Afghanistan? Won’t al-Qaeda return, the Taliban be energised and Pakistan collapse? Maybe. Maybe not. This gets to my second principle: In the Middle East, all politics — everything that matters — happens the morning after the morning after. . .  And the morning after the morning after, the Taliban factions will start fighting each other, the Pakistani Army will have to destroy the Taliban, or be destroyed by them, Afghanistan’s warlords will carve up the country, and, if bin Laden comes out of his cave, he’ll get zapped by a drone.”

Friedman’s conversion is part of a larger realisation that the US has tied itself to a corrupt regime in Afghanistan. One man has tried to steal the presidential election and his brother is entangled in illegal opium production.  Friedman’s conversion may end up serving as protective cover for others to come out of the closet on Afghanistan as well.

One American diplomat, ex-Marine Matthew Hoh, has already publicly resigned from the foreign service rather than continue to work on behalf of the Karzai regime. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s senior envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan, found himself being quoted that while he disagreed with Hoh’s resignation, he agreed with much of what he had given as his reasons.  The irony, of course, is that Holbrooke was one of the early dissenters on the rightness of the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago.

Finally, of course, there is a growing suspicion in Washington that the real game is not Afghanistan, but Pakistan.  Hence the hefty aid package ($7.5billion over five years), thus secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s current visit there to patch up relations.

Pakistan has six times the population of Afghanistan, it borders on Iran, India and China, it has nuclear weapons, it has a whole array of fundamentalist insurgents in its own mountainous northwest districts, a prickly relationship with its giant neighbour, India, and an unstable political balance internally between the military and a weak civilian regime.

If the fundamentalist insurgents can destabilise this country or break its regime, the whole region will feel the effects. India might well be forced to consider military intervention to prevent a full state collapse and the consequent unplanned dispersal of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology.

Yes, the re-imposition of sharia law on much of Afghanistan’s population if the Americans leave and the secular regime fell would be a tragedy for many Afghans and a blow to religious tolerance and human rights. But an Indian decision that intervention in Pakistan was necessary to prevent worse, well, that would be a catastrophe for all of South Asia – and well beyond.

That is why the fact the Obama administration must soon choose between US Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal’s request for tens of thousands of new troops for Afghanistan duty, on the one hand, and vice president Joe Biden’s position that the real problem is Pakistan’s integrity and stability (and that consequently there should be no additional troop commitments in Kabul), on the other, matter so much. Of course, it is just possible the Obama administration will try to split the difference – more focus and attention on Pakistan, yes, but a modest troop increment to protect Afghanistan’s major cities as well, to see if this is just enough to get by.

Obama is meeting with his senior military advisors at the end of the week to consider his future course of action. Although he keeps saying he will make a decision at his own pace, once he has thoroughly examined all the choices, the decision moment is clearly closing in. His decision on Afghanistan may well be a defining moment for Obama’s administration. It will affect his international reputation and his political future – and that of his party – in the 2010 mid-term election and beyond. Having set in motion the course for withdrawal from Iraq by August 2010, thereby breaking free from one sad Bush legacy, he must now figure out how to extricate America from Afghanistan in a way that prevents Kabul’s precipitate collapse, even as it avoids turning this eight-year-old intervention into Obama’s war.


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