Friday, December 17, 2010

A Fair Assessment

The NYT has a short piece reviewing the Obama review of Afghanistan.  It suggests that the analysis itself is a compromise of contradictions.  To me that is not so much a problem but an accurate reflection of reality.  Fighting in the South is going better, but governance is not moving ahead.  The piece suggests a critical problem:
The candidates that Mr. Karzai supported did less well than expected, raising further questions about whether he is losing his base — and by extension, whether the United State is losing its.
Yes, the US is siding with Karzai and his merry band of kleptocrats.  But given that Karzai's government is the elected one, we are very much stuck.  Even as we try to build institutions, rather than perhaps bet on individuals (although the article's discussion of NATO seeking to keep/change governors may be about individuals rather than institutions), we end being associated with individuals--Karzai.  What alternative do the US and NATO have?  A coup?  No, that is not an option (didn't work so well in Vietnam, but that does not mean it cannot be a backup plan).  As much as we want to focus on the local level and ignore Kabul, the governors are selected by Kabul--by Karzai.  Stuck squared.

So, we should not be surprised that there are contradictions both because the situation is confounding and because there are different political actors with competing preferences about what the US should be doing in Afghanistan.  To say that this review does not provide clarity (as the NYT editorial indicates) is to miss the point--imposing clarity on a situation that is hardly clear may be more problematic.  Nor should we be surprised that there are not clear ideas about how to handle Pakistan either.  Again, there are real limits to American power.  Getting Pakistan to do what the US wants illustrates these limits pretty well.  Like Karzai, if Pakistan is pushed too hard, the results are likely to be very counter-productive.

We didn't choose Afghanistan, it chose us.  But the war in Iraq was such a tremendous diversion and distraction that we not only lost opportunities but became that much more dependent on Pakistan.  Obama simply cannot start from scratch.  He faces a series of bad choices.  Which is the least bad?  I don't know.

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