Afghanistan

AFGHANISTAN….I’ve been noodling and reading about Afghanistan lately. I don’t really have anything new and interesting to say about it yet — I’m still just thinking — but Juan Cole writes today that he’s uneasy with the standard liberal view (shared by Barack Obama) that we should get out of Iraq in order to free up troops for the “real” fight in Afghanistan:

If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don’t think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq. If playing it up is politics, then it is dangerous politics. Presidents can become captive of their own record and end up having to commit to things because they made strong representations about them to the public.

….Afghan tribes are fractious. They feud. Their territory is vast and rugged, and they know it like the back of their hands. Afghans are Jeffersonians in the sense that they want a light touch from the central government, and heavy handedness drives them into rebellion. Stand up Karzai’s army and air force and give him some billions to bribe the tribal chiefs, and let him apply carrot and stick himself. We need to get out of there. “Al-Qaeda” was always Bin Laden’s hype. He wanted to get us on the ground there so that the Mujahideen could bleed us the way they did the Soviets. It is a trap.

Beware.

The main argument for beefing up our presence in Afghanistan is obvious: It’s the home of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and these are the groups we really ought to be fighting. But what’s left of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, and Cole argues that this is largely where the remnants of the Taliban are too. (See, for example, today’s New York Times piece about the Taliban taking control of a famous and highly profitable marble quarry in Pakistan’s tribal areas.) So if we’re not going to invade Pakistan (and we’re not) and the supposed Taliban rebels in Afghanistan are really just “disgruntled Pushtun villagers” (Cole’s guess), then what are we doing there?

Now, I’m not sure I buy this. At least some of those Taliban rebels really are Taliban rebels, and in any case, if we left Afghanistan we’d certainly be giving both the Taliban and al-Qaeda far more freedom of movement than they currently have. On the other hand, it’s true that right now most Taliban and al-Qaeda forces are in Pakistan, and we don’t have much of a strategy for going after them there — regardless of how many troops we have available. So we’re stuck: we can’t go forward and we can’t go back. We’ve been slowly but continually increasing our presence in Afghanistan for the past five years, and all it’s gotten us is steadily less control of the country and a steadily higher body count.

So what’s the strategy going forward? Is there one? More later.