September 24, 2009

Offshore Drilling

During the 2008 election an unexpected surge in oil futures and gas prices added spice to a bubbling stew of economic turmoil. Candidates were forced to defend a problem outside their control, causing them to lunge at tax holidays and offshore drilling as short term solutions to long range problems. The argument of eliminating al-Qaeda in Pakistan from “offshore” is a similar gimmick - intentionally ambiguous, overtly political, and ultimately unrealistic.

We may never know who actually supports this strategy. Vice President Joe Biden is the face but he may not be the brains. In any event he stands for an alternative to escalation in Afghanistan, but his backers should keep searching because chasing al-Qaeda in Pakistan is fatally flawed.

First Biden’s true intentions must be revealed. His words are deliberately double-sided to appear tough and mitigating at the same time, and drenched in fear of political repercussions. Not long ago Biden warned of more sacrifice and making general statements like the Afghan-Pakistan border is a place that, “if it doesn’t get straightened out, will continue to wreak havoc on Europe and the United States.” All of a sudden he wants to scale back the mission, believing it out of reach.

A political game is in play but we must focused. Two options are possible, assuming no more troops are added: current troop levels will be maintained to buy time while special forces dig deeper into Pakistan, or troop levels will be reduced as the mission shifts from nation-building to counter-terrorism. Both scenarios give America a low chance of “winning,” “succeeding,” or even saving face.

It would be foolish to sustain a constant troop level considering why President Obama and Biden are rethinking their strategy. Obama deployed 17,000 troops to guard the election in hopes of securing a legitimate government. High-turn out and low corruption were supposed to pave the way for more US troops, but Obama is suffering doubts now that the opposite occurred. Logically he should remove the troops he stationed for the election if he doesn’t feel the outcome justifies another deployment.

“A counterinsurgency strategy can only work if you have a credible and legitimate Afghan partner. That’s in doubt now,” said Bruce Riedel, who chaired Obama’s review of Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Part of the reason you are seeing a hesitancy to jump deeper into the pool is that they are looking to see if they can make lemonade out of the lemons we got from the Afghan election.”

A discouraging outlook, lemons aside, because America cannot withstand the Taliban without reinforcements. Current and drawn down forces alike will find themselves waist deep in stalemate and the war will drag on with limited progress to show the American people. This is the first flaw of Biden’s strategy: war with the Taliban doesn’t end no matter where he “shifts his focus” unless America withdraws completely. Since Biden gave no indication that America is leaving for good, does he expect the Taliban to lay down its arms or are American soldiers going to leave the Taliban alone? In fact, the majority of Biden’s argument is illogical.

Does he intend to leave the Taliban intact? Then what? Even if al-Qaeda's body is destroyed in Pakistan it still dwells in other conflict zones. The chances are high that a decentralized, ideological movement like al-Qaeda will revive itself as many times as necessary. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who opposes Biden’s plan, took shots at him during an interview with PBS on Monday. “If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can’t tell you how fast Al Qaeda would be back in Afghanistan,” she said.

She’s probably right so Biden’s theory doesn’t make sense here, nor does the assumption that al-Qaeda won't evolve around drone strikes. He then collides with his own logic.

Biden and his supporters argue that a heavier footprint is an unsustainable long-term strategy, and he’s correct. Why then does he think Pakistan will be any different from Afghanistan. Afghans are leery of Americans, but the Pakistani public is among the most anti-American in the world. Shifting the war in their direction is even less sustainable than Afghanistan. Establishing the proper intelligence network demands more American soldiers than Pakistan is willing to allow: zero.

The potential for aggravation between Obama, Biden and the Pentagon was on display when Pakistani military officials told their American counterparts not to connect Pakistan with Afghanistan. American officials may believe Pakistan is the real problem, and it may be, but Obama has no benefit of perception. The Pakistani army warned that shifting the emphasis to Pakistan not only threatens the war, but American-Pakistani relations as well.

Imagine being told this then coming home and hearing America’s civilian leaders advocate the exact strategy they were warned against. It’s not so far fetched to assume military officials are skeptical of whether their civilian overseers know their stuff. America is going to need Pakistan even more to launch operations into Waziristan and the rest of the FATA, but the very act of doing so imperils the war - another contradiction.

Vice President Biden should learn from President Obama’s recent mistake and stop playing political games with Afghanistan. Offshore drilling is a pipe dream. Octopus Mountain is still developing a successful withdrawal or drawn down, but the Pakistan option was ruled out long ago.

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