Juan Cole: Top Ten things that Could Derail Obama's Afghanistan Plan

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

1. Obama's plan depends heavily on training 100,000 new soldiers and 100,000 new policemen over the next three years. It has taken 8 years to train the first 100,000 soldiers fairly well, and the same period for the Europeans to train a similar number of police badly. Can the pace really be more than doubled and quality results still obtained?

2. Obama's plan assumes that there can be a truly national Afghan army. But the current one is disproportionately Tajik and signally lacks troops from the troubled Helmand and Qandahar provinces. Unless the ethnic tensions are eased, training a big army could well provoke an anti-Tajik backlash in Pashtun regions that feel occupied.

3. Obama's goal to"break the Taliban's momentum" may well fail. Only 20 percent of insurgencies in modern times are defeated in a decisive military manner.

4. The US counter-insurgency plan assumes that Pashtun villagers dislike and fear the Taliban, and just need to be protected from them so as to stop the politics of intimidation. But what if the villagers are cousins of the Taliban and would rather support their clansmen than white Christian foreigners?

5. Obama is demanding that Pakistan help destroy the Taliban movement, a historical ally of Pakistan in Afghanistan. While Pakistan now has good reason to attempt to wipe out the Pakistani Taliban Movement, which has committed a good deal of terrorism against the country, Islamabad has no reason to attack the Afghan guerrilla groups fighting Karzai. They are fellow Muslims, and are Pashtuns (as are 12 percent of Pakistanis), and dislike India. The Northern Alliance elements in the Karzai government, which have recently grown stronger, are pro-India. Obama is asking Pakistan to betray its national interests, which is not realistic in the absence of some much bigger carrot than a few billion dollars in foreign aid.

6. Obama asserts that although the Afghan presidential election was marked by fraud, the results (the victory of Hamid Karzai) are legitimate within the constitutional framework. But isn't it possible that Karzai has decisively lost legitimacy among broad sections of the Afghan public, wounding him as a partner in working for a recognition of the legitimacy of a greatly expanded foreign occupation army in the country?

7. Obama is demanding accountability from cabinet members in Afghanistan and offering agricultural and economic aid. But 15 present and former cabinet members are under investigation for massive embezzlement, and 7 key ministries were only able to spend 40% of their budget allocation last year. Isn't Obama counting on a culture of official probity and a governmental capacity that simply does not exist in Kabul? What happens when there is more cabinet-level corruption and when the Ministry of Agriculture once again just can't spend the money Obama gives it?

8. Obama assumes that the US is not fighting a broadbased insurgency in Afghanistan. This assumption is true in the sense that there is zero support for Taliban or Sunni extremists among Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and a majority of Pashtuns. But if we looked at the equivalent of counties in Helmand, Qandahar and some other Pashtun provinces, we might find substantial swathes of territory where the insurgency is in fact broadly based. Moreover, Pashtun guerrillas can count on a certain amount of sympathy from other Pashtuns in their struggle against foreign forces-- including the 20-some million Pashtuns of Pakistan. If the issue is not the" cancer" of extremist ideology, but a form of religious Pashtun anti-imperialism, then that could be the basis for a broadly based movement.

9. Obama maintains that the"Taliban" have in recent years made common cause with"al-Qaeda" in seeking to overturn the Karzai government. But although the Taliban control 10-15% of Afghanistan, there are no al-Qaeda operatives to speak of in Afghanistan. That does not sound like much of a common cause. By confusing the Taliban with al-Qaeda, and by confusing the Taliban with other Pashtun guerrilla groups such as Hikmatyar's Hizb-i Islami, Obama risks making the struggle a black and white one, whereas it has strong regional, ethnic and nationalist overtones (see 8 above). Black and white struggles are much more difficult to negotiate to a settlement.

10. The biggest threat of derailment comes from an American public facing 17 percent true unemployment and a collapsing economy who are being told we need to spend an extra $30 billion to fight less than 100 al-Qaeda guys in the mountains of Afghanistan, even after the National Security Adviser admitted that they are not a security threat to the US.

Read entire article at Informed Comment (blog of Juan Cole)

comments powered by Disqus