There have been many important events over the past few months that were in no way coincidental: President Obama traveled to Europe and Asia; the announcement of yet another “incentive” deal to quiet North Korea; the visit to China to attempt to stabilize relations; Obama has been holding high-level meetings on Afghanistan policy; and this week the state visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. All of these events point to a massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
It is actually Manmohan Singh’s visit that is the most telling. India and Pakistan have been at odds with each other for half a century, and both now have nuclear weapons. It is in India’s interest that Pakistan is governed by a stable democratic regime, and in particular that Pakistan does not gain control of Afghanistan under a fundamentalist regime. India has already contributed over one billion dollars to the Afghan War effort, and will most certainly contribute more. Solidarity between the U.S. and India is a key element of any Afghan policy that involves ramping-up the war effort.
Obama has been mending international relations that were severely damaged by the Bush administration’s arrogant attitude toward our overseas allies. He is attempting to put foreign policy distractions like North Korea on the back burner as well as trying to strengthen our economic ties to China – Obama knows the struggle to turn the economy around is key to the struggle to turn Afghanistan around. While party partisans and professional critics have been accusing him of dithering on Afghan policy, Obama has been laying the groundwork for a concerted effort to fight and win in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately both history and his fellow politicians are against him. Afghanistan is a particularly tough region to get a handle on. Because of its strategic location between East and West Asia the area has changed hands regularly throughout its history, first taken by one empire, then another, then another. As with many mid-Eastern nations the modern version of Afghanistan came into being as a result of World War One, when it was created from whole cloth at the 1919 Paris meetings between France, Britain, and America. The British couldn’t hold on to it, nor the Russians, and there is little reason to think we can do any better. It is a hard, mountainous, difficult country populated by a hard, difficult people who seem to insist on independence from well-meaning foreign invaders.
On the political side, Obama will need Congressional cooperation to implement any large-scale Afghan operations. But Congress cares little for presidents or policies when surfing the oscillating waves of public opinion. Congress has two priorities: keep raising money, and stay in office. They can no more think in terms long-range strategy than American CEOs can.
But it seems certain that President Obama is about to announce a major new war effort in a country that has seen little else for the past 2,000 years. The question is how well has he laid the groundwork, and how many of our allies will be on-board. Expect him to have good reasons for the effort, and to offer a clear strategy for getting in, winning, and getting out. But also expect reality to make all of that moot, as it always does in war. Very few wars have ever gone as planned, and almost all have become larger than anticipated, and difficult or impossible to control. War breeds war.