My most important concern, however, is with the president's own reflexive tendency to compromise. The early reports (believable, if not conclusive) are that he intends to split the difference between his own inclination to pursue 'al-Qaeda' in Pakistan and his commanders' advice to garrison the Afghan enclaves (ala Bush's last stand in Baghdad) while provoking the Taliban resistance in the south with the rest of the increased forces.
That course is intended to satisfy both ambitions, but my fear is that the sole decision to remain offensively engaged in Afghanistan will irrevocably commit the U.S. to an end-game which has eluded invaders of Afghanistan throughout history who have sought to transform the country with their military. The entire NATO enterprise is balanced on bribes and dubiously conquered territory with a widely disliked and disregarded government we've enabled into power - Karzai's corrupt regime expected to lead the country away from the objectionable influences of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This is the state of affairs which the military is busy assuring the president is 'necessary' to achieve his stated goals to 'dismantle and defeat' al-Qaeda in the country and the region.
It's no wonder why the militarized resistance in Afghanistan has been reported to be gaining power and influence, despite the efforts of the NATO forces. It won't matter to the rest of the country what form the central government we're feathering in Afghanistan takes on if it's influence is restricted to 'green-zoned' enclaves behind the protection of our military.
Gareth Porter reports today that the foreign troops' presence and activity in Afghanistan is dependent on exorbitant payments to warlords to facilitate their 'safe' movement around the country. When it's said that our forces are there defending the central government, it shouldn't be forgotten that American and NATO forces have played it fast and loose with opportunistic alliances with individuals and groups who almost certainly harbor elements which actively threaten that central authority.
Civilian officer Matthew Hoh, in his resignation letter, complained that our forces were defending a corrupt government against a Pashtun insurgency. That's much different from the description of the state of conflict the administration has defined as al-Qaeda-loving Taliban threatening the government we've enabled into power. It's no wonder the population is ambivalent about throwing their full support behind Karzai. With all of the money thrown around to these warlords and other regional leaders in Afghanistan, there's going to be an undue amount of influence they'll be able to wield in the provinces, quite independent and immune from any of the expectations we may demand from the central government.
It's a sure bet that our troops will eventually be fighting and dying at the hands of these insurgent groups that we're opportunistically giving aid and comfort to. Right now, the plan seems to be to create some sort of Potemkin state of 'stability' in Afghanistan with these payments (more included in the Defense bill the president just signed) to the warlords. The endurance of that purchased stability will depend on how long we can keep up the bribes and what happens when the payments stop.
It's just not credible to expect that our military forces can maintain and expand their operations in Afghanistan to some ideal end where our national security can't be defined as at-risk in some form by someone bent on winning something or other there. We could just as easily make up a definition of victory right now and proceed to leave. If not, any decision by the president to continue on in Afghanistan, in any form, will be an indefinite commitment which will certainly escalate the violence and instability before anyone will be able to manage to tamp all of that down.
Eugene Robinson argues in his column today that President Obama can't just split the difference in Afghanistan. He writes:
His basic method has been to avoid drawing bright lines between mutually exclusive positions. He looks for ways to reframe issues so that what once was an either-or proposition can be transformed into a both-and scenario. On health care, for example, he set out to provide both universal coverage and long-term cost control. The legislation that now seems likely to emerge doesn't quite do either, but does some of each -- and Obama, by splitting the difference, has managed to bring us closer to meaningful, though imperfect, health care reform than we've ever been.
But the decisions presented by Afghanistan truly are either-or. Obama can decide to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy or a counterterrorism strategy. He can do one or the other -- not both. If he chooses counterinsurgency, he has to send enough troops to make that strategy work. If he doesn't want to send all those troops, he needs to pursue counterterrorism or do something else . . .
Right now, Obama is at the key juncture: in or out. If he ratifies the counterinsurgency strategy and approves a troop increase, he'll be committing the United States to see the project through to its end. Advisers say the president's goals for "fixing" Afghanistan are realistic, even modest. To me, however, the whole enterprise looks unrealistic and immodest.
More to the point, I believe the president's intention is to string the Afghanistan occupation out to a point where he can find political consensus in Congress to withdraw, much like Bush and Iraq. It's instructive to observe how the president willingly embraced Bush's opportunistic agreement with the Iraqi government to leave the country (not until he was safely tucked away in Crawford). By accepting the premise and substance of Bush's autocratic agreement with the Iraqis, the president committed our troops another danger-filled wait for another round of meaningless Iraqi elections which were supposed to transform the enabled regime into a popular and influential item. To his credit, the president appears ready to declare victory for Bush's war of choice and eventually withdraw, but if you believe the U.S. has done anything more there than barely pull up it's pants to leave after it's brutal assault you haven't been paying attention.
If the president opts for that kind of eventual end to our grudging invasion of Afghanistan, he'll find that our military forces won't be regarded there as anything more than the self-interested occupiers that Iraq has been anxious to part with. As Mr. Robinson says, "It's time to raise or fold." In or out.