Afghanistan has been conquered often, but subdued rarely. President
Obama should keep that fact in mind.
"We have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent here
in Afghanistan," Barack Obama said in a visit to Kabul last July. "I
believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our
battle against terrorism."
Mr. Obama, then a candidate for president, said then he would increase
U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan by two or three brigades (there are
about 5,000 soldiers in a brigade) and step up nonmilitary aid to the
President Obama has taken a number of foreign policy positions different
from those espoused by Candidate Obama. But this, alas, appears to be a
campaign pledge he intends to keep. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told
the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday two brigades likely will be
sent to Iraq by mid-Spring, a third by mid-summer.
Since many suspect Candidate Obama took the position he took on
Afghanistan principally to appear tough, so that his call for rapid
withdrawal from Iraq (one of the policies on which President Obama has
backtracked) wouldn't appear as a sign of weakness, I doubt he's thought
this thing through.
The strategic situation in Afghanistan is that we cannot lose there as
long as we maintain a major military presence. (There currently are
about 47,000 allied troops in Afghanistan, or whom 31,000 are
Americans.) But we cannot win so long as al Qaida and the Taliban have
sanctuary in Pakistan. This sounds an awful lot like Vietnam during the
Johnson administration, where U.S. troops won every battle they fought,
but could not win the war because our political leadership was unwilling
to strike decisive blows at the North Vietnamese homeland or at its
camps in Laos and Cambodia.
"Will Afghanistan be President Obama's Vietnam, with Pakistan as
Cambodia on steroids?" retired Army LtCol. Ralph Peters asked recently
in his New York Post column.
We are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, not al Qaida, whose
diminished cadre largely has decamped to Pakistan. The distinction is
important. The Taliban are vicious reactionaries, but their focus is
internal. They do not present the strategic threat to us that al Qaida
We are, moreover, fighting these disparate enemies in different ways.
The war against al Qaida here has been conducted by intelligence and
special operations forces. Our footprint has been light. The war
against the Taliban pits our conventional forces against guerrilla
forces in a land ideally suited for guerrilla warfare.
Al Qaida has been weakened significantly since 9/11. But after being
driven from the cities in 2001, the strength of the Taliban has grown
steadily. This is partly because we've had too few troops in
Afghanistan -- a mountainous region roughly the size of Texas -- to
maintain a presence in the countryside, mostly because the various
tribes remember what happened to the Russians and the British.
"The tribes therefore do not want to get on the wrong side of the
Taliban," said the private intelligence service STRATFOR. "That means
they aid and shelter Taliban forces, and provide them intelligence on
enemy movement and intentions."
Adding three more brigades won't change that equation much. STRATFOR
notes, "there is no conceivable force the United States can deploy to
Iraq, a resource-rich land of 28 million people in the heart of the Arab
world, is strategically critical. Afghanistan has been a backward
bywater for thousands of years. Our only strategic interest there is to
keep it from again becoming a safe haven for al Qaida. We can do that
at far less cost in blood and treasure than by reprising what we did in
"Let's not turn Kabul into a second rate Saigon because we convinced
ourselves that spending more money and sending more troops is a
substitute for a strategy," LtCol. Peters warned.