In deciding to punch an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan and simultaneously serve notice that America will head for the exits fairly soon, President Barack Obama has tried to give most of the stakeholders something to cheer about. Except in this situation the cheer sounds something like, "Well, yeah, okay, maybe...".
The hawks get a troop surge. The doves get an exit strategy. Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the Afghan National Army get a bit more time to shape up. And Obama gets what may be the last thing he wanted: his own war.
Obama inherited a lousy deal, a lemon of a war that had been constructed by a president who didn't read history and an Administration of chicken hawks who studied war at a great remove. It was a war that grew while no one was paying much attention and never seemed to have a strategy. It had lots of tactics - high-altitude bombing, drone strikes, foot patrols, search and destroy - but to what end? Much of the time the soldiers on the ground were either disarming roadside IEDs or bracing themselves for the ones they missed. And just as in Vietnam, body counts were substituted for progress.
I am constantly amazed at how our situation echoes the experience of the Soviet Union - and, by the way, this troops surge will bring our troop level to approximately what the Soviet troop levels were when they decided to give it up. The people whom we clandestinely armed, trained and supplied in the 1980s - the mujaheddin - are exactly the same people who are now trying to drive us out of Afghanistan. Even bin Laden was out there in the 1980s. We blindly supported the most radical Islamist movements. They were operating out of - guess where? - Pakistan. Our motives in Afghanistan may be more humanitarian and altruistic than were the USSR's motives, but we're still an occupying army and as long as we remain, Uncle Sam will be the man on the recruiting poster for the Taliban.
Don't forget that this is an indigenous insurgency. Most of the people we are fighting, call them Taliban or what you will, are Afghans. Whether we leave tomorrow or in fifty years, they will remain. The Taliban like to say, The Americans have the watches, but we have the time. Do we think we will beat them into submission, so that when we do leave they will be docile, democratic and Western-friendly?
The new strategy is COIN, to use the inevitable acronym. Counterinsurgency. The notion seems to be that we must win the "hearts and minds" of the population, but the very presence of an occupation army whose history, culture and traditions are literally and figuratively on the other side of the world puts that goal out of reach. People like Greg Mortenson, he of Three Cups of Tea, win hearts and minds and they don't do it by barging into homes with guns drawn or launching Hellfire missiles from drones.
The addition of 30,000 soldiers, or 50,000 or even 100,000 will not produce anything that a rational mind would call victory. It will cost a lot more money, and more lives will be lost. On the positive side, it may buy us a little time, and the key will be how well and wisely we use that time. We should focus on local, small-scale development, local political power and self-defense, and education, education, education.
My hopes for the future of Afghanistan lie in demographics, education and technology. The population is very young - the median age is under 18. I watched a film called Afghan Star, a documentary about an Afghan TV station that conducted a nationwide talent search, a la American Idol. Eleven million Afghans watched the final show - that is one-third of the total population. There are six million cellphone users in Afghanistan; the young people are connected to the Internet; they are watching TV and listening to radio, which is hugely important in Afghanistan. And those young people want nothing of the Taliban or their extremism. The young Afghans are avid for education. They adopt new technology as if they had invented it. They want to join the world, but they want to do it as Afghans, and not by having us stuff our world down their throats.