Professor of Political Science at California State University, Dominguez Hills
The Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)Hospital recently bombed by U.S. Forces in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Obama's Last Stand on Afghanistan: A Strategy With No Foresight
Posted: 10/20/2015 2:49 pm EDT Updated: 1 minute ago
President Obama's decision to slow the troop drawdown from Afghanistan is hailed by some as the 'right decision.' But this 'right war' had done much wrong to the people of Afghanistan and like most U.S. foreign policy blunders; this one too misses the point.
Afghanistan's current instability has resulted from a U.S. foreign policy miscalculation of giving up long-term strategies for regional stability in favor of short-term 'band-aid' solutions. Such quick fixes have usually unraveled in a year or two and it is hard to believe that this time around the result would be any different. Here is a short list of the major U.S. foreign policy blunders in regards to Afghanistan.
1. In 2001 when the U.S. was weighing to side with the warlordism of the Northern Alliance or the fanaticism of the Taliban, it found it easier to justify its invasion through the vilification of the latter. The U.S. could make a deal with the moderate Taliban who had re-unified Afghanistan and had cleansed the country of all the warlords. The Taliban knew that the days of their draconic extremism were over and they could come around through diplomacy and the whole invasion scheme with several trillion-dollar price tag could have been avoided. But the U.S. sided with the gang of warlords from whom Afghans had taken refuge with the Taliban. You reap what you sow. Those warlords, many of whom were implicated in war crimes in the pre-Taliban Afghanistan, have now turned politicians rendering Afghanistan's as the most corrupt government in the world and are hindering every effort for peace and national reconciliation that is a pre-requisite for 'nation-building.'
2. In 2009, under pressure from India the U.S. took the Kashmir issue off of the Kashmir-Af-Pak negotiations that was so vital to any peace plan and regional stability. With the Kashmir issue unresolved, Pakistan has always felt threatened by the possibility of any Indo-Afghan rapprochement. Since Pakistan cannot compete with India in any developmental competition in a peaceful Afghanistan, Islamabad's apprehension strengthens the hand of the Pakistani military that along with its intelligence agency, the ISI, keep things stirred up. This 'existential threat' prompts Pakistan's blatant interference in Afghanistan both as a benefactor of the circumstance and as an extension and proxy of the U.S. militarism. This in turn invites Iran's subtle but even more threatening intrusions in Afghan politics.
3. During the last Afghan presidential election, the Northern Alliance threatened armed violence and possibly a military take over of the government unless their candidate was declared a winner regardless of the vote count. In a rush to have the Bilateral Security Agreement signed by the new government, Secretary of State John Kerry succumbed to the blackmail and patched up the crisis by declaring both sides as the 'winners' and installed the Northern Alliance candidate Abdullah as the CEO of the new government alongside the winner of the election Ashraf Ghani without any constitutional provisions. This blunder resulted in the institutionalized paralysis of a government apparatus that is preoccupied with self-sabotage and finger pointing. The two-headed monster that is constantly at loggerheads with itself also faces a nation polarized along ethno-linguistic fault lines thanks to the 'divide and conquer' tactics of the foreign occupying forces and the equally vicious neighbors of Afghanistan. This political impasse and economic stagnation is likely to further widen the rift alongside the Pashtun-Tajik ethno-linguistic fault lines. Matters are going to get even worse with the starker prospects of starvation in the upcoming winter drawing yet another line of separation between the dollar rich and the Afghani-poor penny pinchers on the verge of starvation.
4. The major problem with the U.S. policy in Afghanistan is the absence of foresight. Its militaristic policy by its very definition cannot accommodate any peaceful resolution to the crisis. The Obama administration is simply pursuing the Bush-era neo-con policy of pre-emptive military aggression that is based on solving any foreign conflict by throwing bucks and bullets at it. The bucks the Americans threw at the problem have contributed to corruption in the government and the bullets create more enemies that swell the ranks of the opposition. The further pursuance of that failed policy is only going to allow the war to linger with no prospects of peace in sight.
In opposition to the State Department, the U.S. military scuttled earlier efforts on peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and basically pushed the entire re-integration process off tracks. As Kati Morton, the widow of one of America's finest strategic thinkers Richard Holbrooke shared her late husband's frustrations: "Reconciliation -- that was what he was working toward in Afghanistan, and building up the civilian and political side that had been swamped by the military... The whole policy was off-kilter, way too militarized. Richard never thought that this war could be won on the battlefield."
The U.S. military still creates new 'terrorists' faster than it can eliminate the old ones. To the average Afghan the presence of foreign troops represents the dreaded military/ intelligence operations like the Kill List, the signal intelligence of SIMM card cellphones, and the intelligence surveillance reconnaissance. These operations are not only unreliable, but, according to Jeremy Scahill, 88% of their intended targets are innocent bystanders who are conveniently classified as Low CDE collateral damage or simply as 'militants' to justify these reprehensible operations. The international legal charity Reprieve estimates that for every intended target killed by a US drone, 28 unidentified people are killed. Much of this is kept under the radar unless it is brought to light by events like the recent hospital bombing in Kunduz.
With no threat of anti-aircraft fire to distract the pilots and with the hospital GPS coordinates provided to them in advance, the Americans bomb the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) hospital in the center of the city, the only hospital with surgical unit in northeastern Afghanistan, killing at least 22 and wounding nearly 40 that included children and elderly patients. Reckless operations like these have 'war crime' written all over them and they turn people against the U.S., the Kabul regime, and by association against many NGOs and humanitarian organizations such as the Women Shelter in Kunduz that by default of political alliance fall on the wrong side of the firing line.
What adds more fuel to the fire is the Afghan government plan to expand the Afghan Local Police, the dreaded militia who as arms of local strongmen are known for their abuses of the civilians. Both the U.S. and NATO coalition are concerned about the ALP expansion. Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union's special representative to Afghanistan, put it bluntly that even successful reform of the Afghan Local Police, would not be enough to justify its expansion: "There is nobody on the European side who want to invest in anything that even remotely resembles the A.L.P."
The ethno-linguistic centrifugal forces stirred up by 'neighborly' interferences of Iran, Pakistan, and India could plunge the whole region into a nightmare of historical proportion. Stability in Afghanistan does not come through speeding up or slowing down U.S. troop withdrawal, but through establishing a strict deadline for peace and national reconciliation--an objective that can be achieved with 1/10th of the military cost. The U.S. has spent trillions on war efforts hoping that it will win over the opposition militarily. It's time to invest a fraction of that in a peace endeavor. The Northern Alliance wing of the Kabul regime is understandably apprehensive about any rapprochement with the insurgents, but one can't cut off the nose to spite the face.
Time is of the essence. Unless such a reconciliation is achieved in earnest and in the shortest timeframe possible, the U.S. and the Afghan government will be dealing with a more crowded field of insurgents the likes ISIS that could turn the Afghan quagmire into a hotbed of terrorism much worse than anything we've seen in Syria or Iraq. According to a recent United Nations report 'The Islamic State group is making inroads in Afghanistan, winning over a growing number of sympathizers and recruiting followers in 25 of the country's 34 provinces."
Americans should and must place a higher premium on peace and stability in Afghanistan than on the survival of the Kabul regime, least we forget the unraveling of the post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The continued U.S. military presence is most certainly a divisive rather than a cohesive factor that exacerbates the problem. If the record of U.S. military operations is any indication the cross-cultural trust deficit is likely to widen with every subsequent misguided militarist adventure. The U.S. must shift to a strategy of peace and stability as it heads for the exit. The latest White House announcement can only prevent the fall of the Kabul regime under Obama's watch, but it does not offer a long-term solution. He is kicking the can down the road.
No amount of upsurge or drawdown will solve the problem in Afghanistan unless the U.S. actively pursues peace. In the absence of a U.S./U.N.-backed reconciliation process the lingering fratricide will inevitably contribute to further radicalization of the opposition due to social alienation, political disenfranchisement, ideological fossilization, doctrinal rigidity and most importantly 35% unemployment among the youth. The U.S.-Kabul regime attempts to externalize the root of insurgency as a Pakistan-supported ethnic Pashtun Taliban 'element' may not hold water for much longer as more and more of Afghanistan's neglected domestic dissent joins the nominal resistance. If the most recent (April-October 2015) Institute for the Study of War map showing the militant attack and support zones in Afghanistan is any indication, sympathy with the resistance seem to be much broader than otherwise admitted by the government in Kabul. (See map) .
In addressing a policy shift in regards to Cuba, President Obama correctly paraphrased Albert Einstein whose definition of insanity is, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." The crisis in Afghanistan shouldn't take 50 years in order for the Americans to realize the same truth--the truth that rarely if ever has any political conflict been resolved by military means.
Time to pause...
One wonders if there is some merit to the backhanded remark of that great statesman, Winston Churchill who once said: "Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else." Will Obama leave a legacy to prove Churchill wrong? Only time will tell.