President Barack Obama sneaked in and out of Afghanistan by the cover of night, his advance security team clearly too worried about the situation in Kabul to allow him to appear in public by day. And they would have been right, since shortly after Obama departed, Taliban hit a foreign workers’ guest house (which was very secure) and killed 6 people (some reports say 17), announcing that Obama is not welcome in Afghanistan.
The ostensible purpose of the trip was to sign a [pdf] Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai. The SPA is essentially an executive order, not a treaty, since Obama did not take it to Congress. On the Afghan side, I think it is also an executive order and was not approved by the Afghanistan parliament. Although the White House assures us that it has the force of law, it clearly falls short of being a binding treaty.
The agreement designates “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, the same status as is enjoyed by Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan and a handful of other countries.
The document speaks of commitment to democracy, but Karzai stole the last presidential election, and there were serious allegations of irregularities in the most recent parliamentary elections, as well.
The document pledges that the US will have no permanent bases in Afghanistan, but the issue won’t even come up again for discussion until a decade or a decade and a half. There are roughly 88,000 US troops in Afghanistan, but that will come down to some 69,000 by September, and then most of those will leave by the end of 2013.
In the meantime, the US will have access to Afghanistan bases and will provide special forces for the continued fight against “Taliban” (most of the ones we call that aren’t), as well as continuing to train the Afghan army.
And more importantly to pay for it (roughly $4 billion a year). Afghanistan cannot afford the enormous army being created for it, so it will go on being supported by ‘strategic rent’ from outside powers or it will collapse.
Obama’s four-fold strategy for Afghanistan is sickly if not dead. It consisted of:
1. Finding a way to replace the eratic and undependable Hamid Karzai with someone else (perhaps Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister of the Northern Alliance).
But Karzai stole the last presidential election and is still there, and Obama had to grin and bear it.
2. Conduct a massive counter-insurgency strategy, rooting out the Taliban and winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans for a new political order.
I don’t think there is any reason to believe that ‘counter-insurgency’ succeeded. The hearts and minds were un-won by night raids (sometimes with a mistaken target), peeing on corpses of dead Taliban, burning Qur’ans at Bagram base, etc., etc.
3. Train up a capable new Afghanistan National Army.
The army, now 187,000 strong, suffers from being 86% illiterate, and from being disproportionately Tajik (Dari Persian-speaking Sunnis not respected by the majority Pashtuns), and from having almost no buy-in from Qandahar and Helmand provinces (Taliban strongholds). It loses the equivalent of counties in the east to the Taliban and can’t seem to fight independently of US troops. Only one ANA military unit is assessed as able to fight independently, out of nearly 100). It is bloated, over-equipped, but under-trained and lacking in initiative and apparently esprit de corps. That this army can defeat the Taliban or even just keep Karzai from being hanged when the US and NATO depart is not at all a sure thing.
4. Use drone strikes to hit al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the tribal belt of Pakistan, while pressuring Pakistan finally to step up and help defeat the Taliban.
Actually the drone strikes have created a strong backlash in the Pakistani public, jealous of their national sovereignty. When the US air force inadvertently hit 24 Pakistani troops in December, the Pakistani parliament stopped NATO supply trucks from using the Pakistan route from Karachi to the Khyber pass, marooning thousands of tons of military equipment intended for the Afghanistan National Army. Parliament is recommending against letting the US ship military goods through Pakistan, and against allowing further drone strikes.
Ordinarily foreign policy is an executive prerogative, but the executive in Pakistan is paralyzed by a constitutional crisis, with the Supreme Court holding the Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, in contempt because he hasn’t moved against President Asaf Ali Zardari for corruption.
Obama just disregarded the parliamentary report and used drones again in Pakistan, to public dismay.
Pakistan is not going well, and neither, really, is Afghanistan.
So, Mitt Romney, who is jumping up and down like a little boy in the background, shouting ‘Me, too!’, ‘Me, too!’, seems unaware that he is me-tooing a policy that is in deep trouble with the exception of the killing of Bin Laden last year.
Obama told the US troops there that everyone over here knows of their sacrifices and deeply appreciates them. Alas, I fear few Americans are paying attention to Afghanistan. The war is unpopular now with the part of the public that does know about it, including even Republicans (so Mitt has little chance of picking up leverage here). I seldom see it reported on on television, and even a lot of newspapers are basically ignoring it. You wouldn’t know we had nearly 90,000 troops fighting and dying abroad.
So although Afghanistan and Pakistan have not gone well for Obama, there is likely no US political gain to be had on either side from the misery of those two countries.