Obama’s Afghan Stagecraft

Posted October 27, 2009

We await the Obama administration’s decision to follow one escalation in Afghanistan with another. The military tops have gone public with their support for tens of thousands of more troops as part of a “counter-insurgency” strategy while some in the administration (specifically Joe “The General” Biden) want to limit the strategy to something they call “counter-terrorist”. The military seems to be successfully attempting to set the parameters of the eventual decision by publicly placing the goal posts. At least at the level of propriety, that is just not done and yet the administration seems content to have the military brass sell the escalation. Democrats have always had a national security inferiority complex. One consequence, unintended we are sure, of letting the Generals speak is shared blame should things go wrong.

Much depends, so the story goes, on the outcome of the run-off elections next week. Once Karzai’s rule is legitimized by an election slightly less fraud ridden then the last then the Obama administration will announce more troops. In fact the promise of more troops is what brought Karzai to accept the run-off in the first place. Statecraft or stagecraft? To ask is to answer.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Obama already claim, with the addition of several tens of thousands of new troops and the offensives in Helmand this summer, that he had already changed strategy from the Bush administration? Could it be that Obama’s first strategy change, which seemed to be limited to “a lot more troops”, proved a dud and now another is needed? Obama is changing not the Bush strategy, but the strategy he ran on. It’s not surprising that his original “strategy” change failed, after all it was based entirely on domestic electoral considerations.

As usual there are patronizing calls for more Afghans to “stand up” and die for the imperial project with the overall number of troops needed to defend the squalid Kabul regime said to be something like 600,000. The creation of a comprador army will funnel huge amounts of money into a sieve of corruption. “Afghans have to take the responsibility to defend themselves” is the refrain. The Taliban can claim, with some justification, that that is precisely what they are doing.

The fight takes on ethnic tones as well. While the Karzai leadership is Pashtun the Afghan army recruits mainly from the Tajik, Uzbek and other northern ethnic groups while the Taliban is almost exclusively Pashtun. The exasperation of existing divisions that such a strategy will necessarily impose will make the central government less, not more, legitimate in the eyes of many. In Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq; where the US goes civil war follows. Divide and rule may be old school, but that doesn’t mean it’s been learned from.

Whether it is 10,000 or 40,000 more troops is not entirely the point. The point is that the Obama administration is whetted to the Afghan adventure. One troop increase tends to lead to another. In any case, Obama, who used his Afghan escalation to prove his imperial bona fides during the election, is now trapped by his opportunism; he must escalate. Obama seems to believe that taking his time on announcing the decision will present the decision as well thought out, serious and taken in earnest. My guess is that the decision has already been made.

The stagecraft of last year’s US election, where Obama ran on escalation, has precluded any withdrawal. More war may not be why folks voted for Obama, but it is what he ran on. The hole is dug and the administration seems set to keep digging with no end in sight. I can’t make any predictions on the outcome but I can say with certainty that, no matter what, billions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of lives will be the price. Thankfully for Obama he has already won the Nobel Peace Prize as future events may make even Oslo blush a little. No, that’s just the cold Norwegian wind.