October 1, 2009
The Harvard Paradox
As rumors of division and stall tactics threaten his credibility on Afghanistan, President Obama still addresses the public only to demand more time and patience, not issue a decision. First he needed to wait until the election occurred, an extinguished excuse, then the leak of General McChrystal’s review and troop request collapsed another front. Now his Harvard mind, accompanied by Ivy elite, is meticulously scanning the chaos for solutions and his officials are playing up his academic cool.
"It is not your typical request for forces," said Defense spokesman Geoff Morrell shortly after the leak. "This is a more analytical look at the situation and what's needed and the risks associated with certain troop levels.”
Meanwhile White House spokesman Robert Gibbs assured Americans that officials are, “evaluating what’s been achieved, evaluating the situation on the ground, assessing the elections.” This in a nutshell is President Obama’s new rationale, that he must review reviews of his reviews and ask everyone in the White House and Pentagon for their opinion before making a decision. Said one senior official, “he’s taking a very deliberate, rational approach, starting at the top of the logic chain.”
President Obama’s supporters and even some of his detractors put their faith in his intelligence. His scholarly aura is commonly cited as a key difference between his predecessors and the reason why he will succeed where others failed. Logic may very well unlock the Rubik’s cubes of health care, nuclear weapons, and green energy, but what about a place where the irregular rules?
If reason is Obama’s strength then he may be in trouble; Afghanistan is everything except analytical, rational, and logical. It’s possible that Obama and his officials simply don’t know what to do, and a few extra months of thinking may not make a difference. Their confusion would be understandable - they’re staring at a land of paradoxes.
Afghanistan’s election is a natural starting point because Obama claims he can’t move until a new government is legitimately established. This could take months because the election is headed for a runoff unless President Hamid Karzai usurps power, and giving the election to Karzai is playing with fire. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, in a Time interview, rejected compromises and demanded a runoff, but the security situation could be at a lower point than before. The outcome will likely be similar, or worse, if Obama doesn’t order another deployment and he would end up where he started. Those troops remaining from his previous deployment won't tip the balance.
Afghan troops and police fall victim to the same chronological contradiction. National forces are the only sustainable solution to upholding Afghanistan’s sovereignty, but they’re years away from field ready. Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen repeatedly warns that America has 12-18 months to turn the war around, but his window doesn’t fit with how long Afghan forces need to train. Obama cannot count on them to be primed by the runoff or in the next few years even if he rapidly increases their training. Rushing could also compromise the force.
Obama must find the troops he urgently needs elsewhere.
Realizing that they must look beyond Afghan forces, military officials are continuously analyzing which tribes can be bought from the Taliban. The dilemma with this theory is twofold. First, America doesn’t possess the cultural knowledge to exploit Afghanistan’s tribal system and would need more ground forces to make the proper connections. Second, this solution targets the Taliban more than al-Qaeda, leading to another paradox.
White House officials are publicly agonizing over whether al-Qaeda or the Taliban is the enemy, or if both are, but President Obama and his officials - namely State Secretary Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, General McChrystal, and Admiral Mullen - have made clear that both will be targeted.
They must realize the solution for each group is very different. al-Qaeda, as in Iraq, is mainly a foreign entity capable of being evicted. The "offshore" method, counter-terrorism, has an outside chance of success against, but combating the Taliban requires broad nation-building and thus more US troops. Taliban fighters, hated as they may be, are part of the native culture. They won’t be dispelled so easily in their own land, either by Afghan forces, local tribes, or drones.
Yet another paradox rises from “offshore." Focusing specifically on Pakistan to eliminate al-Qaeda’s network would require deploying more special forces and drones, increased ties with the government, and potential joint operations with the Pakistan military. This plan ignores anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and warnings from the Pakistani government and army to separate the two strategies. Pakistanis want to help Obama complete his mission so he can militarily withdraw from the region.
On the other side of Pakistan lies a final paradox. Though Obama denies playing political games with Afghanistan, he is certainly playing games with Kashmir. After raising the issue during the election Obama has gone silent, suffocated by Indian pressure. But many Israelis want Obama to stay out of the Palestinian conflict and he’s pushing harder than ever. Pakistan’s leaders and Obama himself have said resolving Kashmir would reverberate in Afghanistan, yet the word is hardly spoken anymore. When will he stand up to India and demand resolution to the conflict?
Most of these problems aren’t Obama’s fault, except possibly the last, but one deadly paradox is homemade. A tumultuous election was predictable given the dire warnings from military officials and record coalition deaths. To delay now implies that Obama’s whole strategy assumed a clean election. Why didn’t he have two strategies, one for each outcome? He should’ve planned for either scenario.
Logic must be turned on its head if President Obama doesn't want to withdraw or add more troops. Afghanistan is composed of unorthodox problems that require unorthodox solutions, some which might be painful to implement.
Possibilities include: reformatting the government from a republic to a parliamentary regime, supporting Abdullah over Karzai, allocating a majority of funds from military to civil projects, prolonged presidential tours of Afghanistan, war reparations, scaling back US presence in Pakistan and dropping the bogus nuclear weapons propaganda, engaging India and Pakistan over Kashmir, negotiating with Taliban chief Mullah Omar.
A few months won’t help President Obama rationalize the illogical and he won’t find the answers in textbooks. He must think outside of Harvard in Afghanistan.