Hixson: Finding a Way Out in Afghanistan

Walter L. Hixson writes in a guest op-ed for IC

After receiving his welcoming gifts from the departing Bush administration—a depression and two failed wars—President Barack Obama faces a perhaps unprecedented combination of challenges. While it is not clear whether he or anyone possesses the wherewithal to resurrect the debt ridden American economy, Obama does possess the power as commander-in-chief to take charge of U.S. foreign policy.

While the United States moves toward an ever more graduated withdrawal from a devastated Iraq, Obama risks becoming more deeply enmeshed in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. As Americans rarely admit defeat, and are too obsessed with manly credibility to simply withdraw, another way out must be found. There may be a way to achieve this goal but only if Obama takes charge of foreign policy that remains profoundly militarized, as it has been since World War II.

The only way out of Afghanistan is through an asymmetrical diplomatic grand strategy encompassing the entire Middle East and South Asia. The task is daunting, to be sure, but Obama and Hillary Clinton have at least shown a desperately needed willingness to pursue diplomacy as opposed to the failed approach of dictating America’s will to the world community.
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The Afghan intervention–like the Iraq intervention, the Vietnam intervention, and all too many other American interventions–stems from a fundamental ignorance or misunderstanding of history. Simply put these are post-colonial wars that are not susceptible to Western imposed military solutions. However well intentioned or rational that they believe themselves to be, modernist Western powers ultimately can only be perceived by the peoples subjected to their destructive power as interventionists violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nations that they are in fact invading.

After campaigning for President on a “get out of Iraq and get tough in Afghanistan” theme, Obama has partially backed off on the former and gotten deeper into the latter. He is thus not off to a promising start in bringing an end to these unwinnable wars. At the same time Obama, who clearly is highly intelligent and pragmatic, understands that the United States is not winning in Afghanistan and moreover he has acknowledged that militarism alone cannot end the conflict.

These are hopeful signs yet the President has also deepened U.S. involvement with a surge of his own in Afghanistan even as 42 percent of the American people think the war is a mistake—a steep rise from the mere 6 percent who opposed it in 2002 in the midst of the nation’s post-9/11 hysteria.

The reason that Obama has deepened involvement in a lost cause is because he, Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden have thus far proven unwilling to take charge of the war from U.S. military and national security elites. Obama’s reappointment of Robert Gates as defense secretary, appointment of former Marine Corps General James L. Jones as national security adviser, and his faith in General David Patraeus, the architect of the surge in Iraq, shows just how deeply militarized American foreign policy remains.

These men are hardly naïve and Patraeus has long harbored a well-founded belief that the Iraq invasion was ill conceived. However, while they are willing to negotiate with moderate elements of the Taliban, it is the faith they have in the military solution of counter-insurgency warfare that promises to keep the United States deeply enmeshed in a disastrous intervention.

Not yet understanding the ultimate futility of post-colonial warfare, Obama’s military advisers believe that they can achieve an acceptable settlement by securing areas of operation while winning the hearts and minds of the Afghani people. Sound familiar? It should, as it is essentially the same policy the United States pursued disastrously for many years in Indochina.

U.S. commanders on the ground are already experiencing frustration with the kinder-gentler counter-insurgency approach. For example, in one village the United States showed its beneficence by presenting the local mullah with a new prayer rug and a loudspeaker system, but the villagers showed no appreciation and within three weeks the Vietcong, er Taliban, had stolen the items.

As with the futile U.S. policy of bombing Indochina while negotiating, the United States continues to pound Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan with drone-delivered bombs, inevitably killing innocent people and arousing anger not only in Pashtun villages but also throughout politically fragile Pakistan. The militarized U.S. policy thus remains the top recruiting service for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (who are not yet one and the same though U.S. intervention drives them in that direction).

Unfortunately it is not very difficult to identify the deadly contradictions in U.S. policy but what about a solution? In our manly and militarized culture, it is taken as received wisdom that simple withdrawal would be disastrous, a deathblow to “credibility,” rendering the nation the embodiment of the Nixonian nightmare of a “pitiful helpless giant.” Although there is precious little evidence or analysis behind this anxiety-ridden masculine conviction, let’s say that it’s true. What then?

The only way out it seem to me is to wage the battle for hearts and minds not through counter-insurgency but through a broad-ranging diplomacy that complements the Obama-Clinton emphasis on engagement and diplomatic “resets.” This is clearly the most encouraging and promising aspect of Obama’s emerging diplomacy and it should be made the priority over the futile quest for a military solution.

In a nutshell the grand strategy would begin by placing unprecedented and relentless pressure on Israel, to the point of cutting off all economic and military aid if necessary, to end its cruel apartheid policies, halt and remove the West Bank settlements and accept a viable solution consistent with the hopes and dreams of the Palestinan people for which Obama speaks but does not yet act. Second, Washington must liquidate the war in Iraq and continue to try to engage Iran.

Finally, the United States should immediately halt the generalized bombing and initiate gradual but certain withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan. If American intelligence can ascertain the location of Osama Bin laden or his top lieutenants, Washington can reserve the option of an isolated surgical strike against them.

If Obama pursues a bold diplomatic strategy as outlined above, he likely will find support from Russia, China, India, the Central Asian “stans,” NATO, and the Arab-Muslim world—in other words, everyone who matters. If any occupation forces are to remain in Afghanistan, they should be comprised strictly of troops from Muslim countries.

Under these circumstances America’s enemies would have little to condemn and much greater difficulty recruiting terrorists. The main threat to Pakistan is internal political disunity not defeat by the Taliban. Continued U.S. intervention in Pakistan and the border region only serves as an issue to divide Pakistanis whereas U.S. withdrawal and financial and political support can help that nuclear-equipped nation try to pull together.
U.S. foreign policy, especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict and in Iraq, has been so wrong and so disastrous for so long that it will take many years to recover. The nation has generated so many enemies that it is certain that many would still like to strike back at America. Needless to say, this would be the worst possible development, as it would undoubtedly bring tremendous pressure to bear on Obama to lash out militarily.

But if that eventuality can be avoided, and if Obama acts boldly on the diplomatic front, he might find a way to extricate the United States from these quagmires that are not of his own making. He could focus American resources where they are most needed—on the domestic front—in job creation, education, health care, a new energy policy, and global environmental protection.

Dr. Walter L. Hixson, professor of history at the University of Akron, is currently the distinguished Fulbright lecturer at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.

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