Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan: A Friendly Critique

Barack Obama wants to get out of Iraq by summer 2010 but wants to send 10,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.

Obama’s editorial is thoughtful and far more sensible than anything we are hearing from the White House or McCain, and I agree with most of it. But I have one quibble and one major critique. The quibble is that Obama talks about leaving a small American force in Iraq after most of the troops are withdrawn, to continue to fight “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.”

That suggestion is not plausible for several reasons. If there is only a small force in the country, who will rescue them if their helicopter gets shot down or they are ambushed and besieged? Then, how would a small American unit be any good against a terrorist organization operating in remote parts of Sunni Iraq? They don’t know Arabic, can’t hope for really good intelligence from locals, etc. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to let the Special Police Commandos of the Iraqi Interior Ministry take care of this sort of thing? By the way, no one seems to be calling themselves “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” any more on the jihadi bulletin boards. The main fundamentalist vigilante group is the “Islamic State of Iraq.”

And then there is the problem that the Iraqis are demanding veto power over US operations in Iraq, a demand that will only grow with time. If they don’t concur that a Sunni group is terrorists, the Baghdad government could just keep the US unit cooling its heels. It is precisely over issues such as Iraqi demands that US troops get permission before they act that Karen DeYoung at WaPo says have definitively derailed negotiations between Bush and al-Maliki on a Status of Forces Agreement. Now the two leaders seem likely just initial some quick and dirty executive-to-executive understanding that may not last past Bush’s last day in office next January. So the Iraqis are unlikely to want a special forces unit of the sort Senator Obama envisages running around Iraq at will.

It will be over with by then. Iraqis want their sovereignty back.

The way to get out of Iraq is to get out of Iraq.

The major critique I have is that Obama keeps talking about intensifying the search and destroy missions being carried out by US troops in the Pushtun areas of southern Afghanistan. As we should have learned from Vietnam, search and destroy missions only alienate the local population and drive it into the arms of the insurgency.

Tom Engelhardt explains how US bombing strikes sometimes hit innocent civilians, including now several wedding parties, which is rather alienating to the clans that are attacked. (The US military says that the insurgents routinely allege that wedding parties were hit when they were not actually. But then there are those pesky photographs of what are obviously civilians . . .)

The cost of such guerrilla struggles is high. On Sunday, Pushtun guerrillas attacked a remote base where US troops were under a NATO command and killed 9 of them, wounding 15. Many more “Taliban” were no doubt killed. But the evidence is that the Afghan insurgents are getting better at fighting the US.

When was the last time that an al-Qaeda operative was captured in Afghanistan by US forces? Is that really what US troops are doing there, looking for al-Qaeda? Wouldn’t we hear more about it if they were having successes in that regard? I mean, what is reported in the press is that they are fighting with “Taliban”. But I’m not so sure these Pushtun rural guerrillas are even properly speaking Taliban (which means ‘seminary student.’) The original Taliban had mostly been displaced as refugees into Pakistan. These ‘neo-Taliban’ don’t seem mostly to have that background. A lot of them seem to be just disgruntled Pushtun villagers in places like Uruzgan.

There has now been a rise of suicide bombings in Afghanistan, on a scale never before seen. One killed 24 people in a bazaar at Deh Rawood on Sunday. Robert Pape has demonstrated that suicide bombings typically are carried out by people who think their country is under foreign military occupation. If the US keeps sending more troops, will that really calm things down? (See also the recent blogging of Barnett Rubin on the situation of Afghanistan)

I don’t know whether Senator Obama really wants to try to militarily occupy Afghanistan even more than is now being attempted. I wish he would talk to some old Russian officers who were there in the 1980s first. Of course, it may be that this announced strategy is political and for the purposes of having something to say when McCain accuses him of surrendering in Iraq.

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.

I think Obama has a little bit of a tendency to try to fix his political problems by going overboard. Thus, he faces skepticism from Jewish American voters. So he made a Zionist speech in Boca. In the context of US politics, that is to be expected; he would not be any sort of politician, much less a phenomenon, if he did not try to reassure Jewish Americans about his commmitment to Israeli security, which is after all a worthy goal. But Obama went on to praise Zionist thinker Theodore Herzl, who started this nonsense about a people without a land for a land without a people. And then he gave away Jerusalem, undivided and permanently, to the Israelis in the middle of ongoing negotiations over its status between Israel and the Palestine Authority in the context of the Quartet, which the US government supports. Neither of those two things was necessary. It was overkill. And Obama now has some bridge building to do with the Arab and Muslim worlds if he becomes president, since Jerusalem is also dear to their hearts.

Search and destroy in Afghanistan is an even worse example of going overboard. My advice to his campaign team is to give more thought to how he can take a strong enough position on an issue to win on it, without giving away the whole store.

We who admire him don’t want Afghanistan to become an albatross around the neck of a President Obama. I am old enough to remember one of the things that nearly killed the Democratic Party as a presidential party in the US, which was the way Lyndon Johnson let himself gradually get roped into ramping up the US troop presence in Vietnam from a small force to 500,000, and then still not win.

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.