Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Exit Problems

Obama is, again, stuck between opposing forces.  His American political case wants the US out of Afghanistan.  The folks in Afghanistan need reassurance that they are not betting on the wrong side, and if we act like we are about to hit the road, they need to lay low or help the Taliban.  What to do?  Send ambiguous signals that are conflicting?  Yes.  But oops, that may not work out that well for either audience.
A senior American intelligence official said the Taliban had effectively used the deadline to their advantage. He added that the deadline had encouraged Pakistani security services to “hedge their bets” and continue supporting militant groups like the Haqqani network.
“They’ve been burned and they’ve seen this movie before,” the official said, noting the American disengagement after the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Should the war deteriorate, he added, Pakistani leaders are thinking, “We don’t want Haqqani turning around and coming this way.”
On this, I think the NYT is wrong (sorry, Peter B.)  That is, the Pakistanis would be playing around in Afghanistan and cozying up with the Haqqani folks either way--with a strong US commitment or without one.  They like to hedge their bets even when they don't need hedging.  Again, a basic social science dynamic--you cannot explain a constant with something that varies or vice versa--the Pakistanis have supported various "bad guys" in Afghanistan when the US commitment was strong, weak and non-existent.  Indeed, the Pakistanis view supporting such folks in Afghanistan as Republicans view tax cuts--always a good idea.  The justification may vary but the stance remains the same regardless of the objective reality.

And McCain is wrong for the same reason when he cites Karzai's intransigence.  Karazai was running against NATO when Obama started the first surge last spring (2009), long before Obama's decision.  And Karzai allowed his minions to rig the election when Obama's leverage was at its maximum--before he made the decision to reinforce.  So, nice try, Johnny McC.

Yes, Obama's 2011 ambiguity may make it harder to fight the war in Afghanistan, as it will and has caused some folks to ponder whether to risk taking our side.  But the most pressing conditions in Afghanistan are the same ones as always: the limits of the Karzai government, the power of those funded by poppies, and the games played by the Pakistanis.  The idea of a deadline of sorts was to push Karzai into action.  It has not worked, but it is not clear whether anything would get Karzai and his folks to be more helpful and less of a hindrance.

I don't think Obama has made every correct decision here, but there are no good choices.  There may be a few signs of progress, and the surge was always going to be accompanied by more violence, not less.  The question remains whether it will peak and decline or just accelerate. 

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