Monday, August 02, 2010

Gideon Rachman on Richard Milhous Obama

Gideon Rachman levels a serious (if slightly conditional) charge against Obama and his AfPak policymakers:
"When western politicians talk about “credibility” in Afghanistan, it is often their own credibility they are worrying about most."
Rachman compares the US approach to Somalia, where the "central government controls little more than a few blocks around the presidential palace in Mogadishu and the airport," and implicitly suggest that the US should
apply the Somali model to Afghanistan. That would mean accepting that outside military intervention is often counter-productive, that its human costs are too high, that state-building is unlikely to work and that the west should concentrate on bottling terrorism up, rather than trying to defeat it on the battlefield.
Rachman seems to suggest that such a shift in US policy in Afghanistan is coming -- but not soon enough.  Hence the charge of putting politics above policy -- and worse:

The other main argument against pulling back from Afghanistan is that western credibility is at stake. If we fail in Afghanistan, Nato might fall apart and America’s enemies across the world will be emboldened. Picture the fall of Saigon in 1975 – now replay that event, with the Taliban entering Kabul.

But this argument is also over-stated. A seriously reduced foreign force could help the Afghan government maintain control of Kabul – much as the African Union force has, so far, kept the Islamists from seizing Mogadishu. Even the fall of Saigon was not the catastrophic blow to the US that it felt like, at the time. Just 16 years later, the Soviet Union collapsed – helped on its way by a draining war in Afghanistan.

When western politicians talk about “credibility” in Afghanistan, it is often their own credibility they are worrying about most. America’s military timetable in Afghanistan already seems tailored to ensure that the US does not “lose” before the next presidential election. But to keep asking troops to fight and die in Afghanistan to avoid electoral inconvenience is immoral.

Implicit in this reasoning is an assumption that David Rieff spells out:
But do Obama and his advisers understand how unrealizable their goals are?

I would like to believe that they do. Whatever else can be said about him, Obama has an excellent analytic mind. It is not as if “we” know something he does not, and, unlike the Bush administration in 2003, which also had many intelligent people working for it, this administration is neither stoned on victory nor drawn to geostrategic master plans. But, while “when you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging” may be the oldest political cliché in the book, policymakers almost never seem to take its lesson to heart.

If the Obama administration is looking to the surge for a kind of fig leaf to cover retreat, that is Nixonian. I'm sure they tell themselves otherwise -- that, as Gates put it today to Christiane Amanpour, they want to create conditions under which the Taliban is battered enough to "consider reconciliation on the terms of the Afghan government." There is some room between a Somalian outcome -- where a government the US supports controls "a few blocks" of the capital -- and standing up a really functioning government in Afghanistan, which no one seems to believe is going to happen soon.  Delusively or not, I think that the Obama administration is committed to creating conditions under which US troops can be drawn down without a total meltdown, and in which a continued, diminishing presence is sufficient to prevent a Taliban takeover. In other words, to create conditions under which a Rory Stewartesque approach -- 20,000 troops and targeted civilian aid -- can be sustained over a long haul, with few casualties.

On the other hand, even Nixon believed that his reasons for staying in Vietnam when he never believed the South Viet government could stand on its own were bigger than his own reelection. A sitting president can always tell himself that preventing the opposition from gaining the presidency is essential to the world's welfare.  Complicating matters still further, in Obama's case such an assumption is very likely justified. More specifically, under the moral equation Rachman puts forward: under what Republican presidential candidate is less blood likely to be shed from 2012-16 than under Obama?

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