It's Barack Obama's war now. Here are some key things to know about this curious, complex war -- in which the newest Nobel Peace Prize-winner has placed himself at the helm of the largest military force ever sent to Afghanistan, the historic graveyard of empire -- along with the likely road ahead.
** Along with NATO, we already have as many troops in Afghanistan as the Soviets did in the 1980s. With Obama's newest escalation, we will have more troops than the Soviets had in Afghanistan.
** The Soviets were winning their war in Afghanistan. Before we intervened with massive covert funding and weapons. Of course, they were pursuing brutal scorched earth tactics, like those they used so notoriously to put down the persistent revolt in Chechnya. Even if Obama, who receives the Nobel Peace Prize next week, weren't horrified by such tactics, and I have no doubt he would be, they would ruin his big effort for a rapprochement with the Islamic world, launched successfully with his address six months ago in Cairo.
** The Soviet Afghan War was won with only a handful of Americans in Afghanistan. Defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan -- in effect, making Afghanistan the Soviet Vietnam -- was key to ending the Cold War and bringing down the Soviet Union. There were virtually no Americans on the ground in Afghanistan. Instead, we worked through cutouts, principally the Pakistanis. The goal wasn't to control Afghanistan, a country with no intrinsic strategic significance for America. The goal was to deliver a stinging defeat to America's enemy, the Soviet Union.
Of course, totally ignoring Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets and the end of the Cold War created a vacuum which, after years of infighting, was finally filled by a new and even more radical group, the Taliban (fundamentalist religious students). A case of penny-wise, pound-foolish, typical of America's lack of historical perspective.
** The post-9/11 Afghan War was won with only a few hundred Americans in Afghanistan. A relative handful of Intelligence agents and special forces operators utilized air power and worked with Afghan forces opposed to the ruling Taliban to chase Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and to bring down the Taliban government when it would not serve up Osama bin Laden, who had finally established his base there after being chased out elsewhere. (Bin Laden, incidentally, was not created by the CIA and was completely tangential in the Afghan war against the Soviets, barely setting foot in the country.) The goal was to defeat the enemy which attacked America on 9/11, the cadre of Al Qaeda. The Bush/Cheney Administration didn't want to risk the potential backlash from having large numbers of American troops on foreign soil. Certainly not something they worried much about any time after that.
** The epic fail of Tora Bora echoes very loudly today. We might not be talking much about Al Qaeda, a diminished force, were it not for the incredible failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. After 9/11, President Bush vowed to get him, dead or alive. But when it came time to take him, almost exactly eight years ago, in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan where he was trying to make his way to a new safe haven in Pakistan, it didn't happen. Read the new Senate report on this, and weep. The Bush/Cheney Administration turned down repeated reqests, saying it didn't want a heavy foreign presence on the ground, so he was allowed to slip away.
** Bill Clinton was criticized for failing to destroy the Al Qaeda training and operational bases in Afghanistan with cruise missiles in the late 1990s. Instead, it was said that he should have used special operations forces to wreck the Al Qaeda operation. Notice that no one seriously suggested that he launch a full-scale invasion to accomplish this. It wasn't necessary for the mission. Why we have to control Afghanistan now to stop Al Qaeda from using it as its base of operations is a bit of a mystery, as we can readily smash any such bases in Afghanistan.
** Barack Obama ran for president on a program of escalating the war in Afghanistan. He was very clear about this. The fact that he is now doing what he said he would do when he ran for president should be no surprise to people who supported him. Or to those who did not.
** The Pakistan quandary looms very large. Of course, being president is more complicated than being candidate for president. Perhaps the biggest complication with regard to Afghanistan is Pakistan. It's the only Islamic nuclear power, knock on wood with regard to Iran. So allowing it to fall into the hands of jihadists would be, as the saying goes, bad. Fortunately, Pakistan has pushed back successfully this year against what had been major Taliban gains around the country, gains which happened as a result of inaction during the Bush/Cheney Administration. But its more remote provinces still provide a safe haven for Afghan Taliban -- in some ways invented by Pakistani intelligence -- and for Al Qaeda.
American escalation in Afghanistan may push more jihadists into Pakistan, risking destabilization, as Pakistan's leaders have pointed out. They are noncommittal so far about the new Obama strategy in Afghanistan. And, though they've pushed back hard against local Taliban threatening their own rule, they haven't been so supportive of efforts against other jihadists. With at least some sort of American exit strategy now in place for Afghanistan, it may occur to the Pakistanis that the Taliban will outlast America in Afghanistan, and end up controlling much if not most of the country. Yet Pakistan can be very helpful with intelligence about the Afghan Taliban, who are likely to infiltrate the Afghan army and police we say we are trying to build up while the present surge lasts.
** Is defeat in Afghanistan inevitable? No. Remember that the Soviets were winning before America lanched its massive covert intervention in Afghanistan. Not that we could pursue the same sort of ruthless tactics.
The answer really depends on how you define success. Is it likely that Afghanistan is going to be built into a truly functioning nation-state any time soon? No. Are we going to stick around for decades to make that happen? No. Is it likely we can train large numbers of illiterate recruits (Afghanistan's literacy rate is 10%) into professional security forces? It's very difficult. Can we deny Afghanistan as a base for "The Base," Al Qaeda? Yes. But we've been able to do that for the past eight years, with no escalation necessary. What seems most likely is that friendly forces can continue to control northern Afghanistan, providing basing to chase down Al Qaeda concentrations in Taliban-friendly southern Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border if need be.
** So what happens next in what may well be an extended exercise on the politico/military equivalent of a stairmaster?
Obama gave his big speech at West Point. Which was not one of his best, as he seemed rather nervous and didn't establish a rhetorical rapport with the crowd of cadets and the long military tradition with which he was there to resonate. Still, he got the message across. He will send 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan. When it's all said and done, there will be about 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. There are over 40,000 troops there from American allies, principally NATO nations. Nearly 10,000 of those troops are British.
He's ordered the generals to have most of the new troops in place in six months, much faster than previously assumed possible.
He wants NATO to provide another 5000 troops. NATO leadership says it will provide 7000 new troops. But that decision won't be taken in terms of actual commitments from NATO nations till an international conference on Afghanistan at the end of next month in London.
Obama plans to protect big population areas while heavily degrading Taliban forces and spinning up the training of Afghan forces.
And Obama wants to withdraw most American troops in three years, reiterating that he'll start withdrawing troops in the middle of 2011. But how quickly those troops are withdrawn is up in the air.
The plan is predicated on pushing back the Taliban, which the military says presently control a third of the provinces, to provide a space for a rapid build-up of Afghan security forces.
A lot of things have to go right for this very ambitious plan, which sounds a great deal like Vietnamization, which worked wonders for Richard Nixon, to work. But you can bet that Obama wants most American troops out of Afghanistan by the time of his re-election.