November 29, 2009

Afghan Wedding

Bells are ringing in Kabul and Washington. Months of will he, won’t he are over, the big day is finally here. Some members of the family oppose the arrangement, but it’s too late now. President Obama is finally marrying Afghanistan.

But this marriage is unusual - it comes with a certified expiration date.

Press secretary Robert Gates told reporters the day before Thanksgiving, "We are in year nine of our efforts in Afghanistan. We are not going to be there another eight or nine years. Our time there will be limited and that is important for people to understand.”

In other words, President Obama has seven years to withdraw from a stable Afghanistan or face defeat. But given the nature of guerrilla warfare, seven years appears to overreach just like a year proved insufficient time for a massive task like closing Guantánamo.

Seven years assumes Afghanistan will turn out like Iraq, her second cousin, which needed almost three years to stabilize after near civil war. America should be thankful to exit Iraq five years after the surge, if the withdrawal in 2011 goes off as planned.

Afghanistan is bigger, poorer, has less US troops, more insurgents, and the most corrupt government in the world. 10-15 years sounds plausible - and also politically poisonous. How, though, will Obama leave Afghanistan, without an enemy, by 2017? Is he that certain he’ll succeed?

Confidence is necessary in war, but Obama has been known to over-promise. He’s going to need an arsenal of luck no matter how smart the collective White House and Pentagon is. He needs something old, new, borrowed, and blue.

President Obama has no stronger link to the past than his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. With knowledge of all the regional players in government halls, military bases, and mountains, his strong resistance to what the military terms its “growing footprint” should come as no surprise.

He’s seen it fail.

Though Gates still favors escalation to secure the country, he’s unlikely to support additional deployments after the 30,000 being readied now. Hopefully Obama will listen because he might run out of money and lose the war too.

As the deficit creeps above $1.4 trillion, Obama is betting the country on trillion dollar initiatives in health care and Afghanistan. The White House budget office estimated that each soldier’s upkeep costs 1$ million annually. Maybe Obama thinks American dollars are lucky because he’s borrowing lots of them.

The war’s cost in June reached 6.7$ million before the 17,000 troops Obama sent had fully arrived. Another 30,000 combat troops, along with their support, could push the figure to 10$ billion a month. Add the costs of reconstruction and each year will cost well over 100$ billion.

"It is very, very, very expensive," Gibbs said.

Obama can’t escape his blue - the feelings of those who oppose the war. Remember them well. Obama needs support to achieve success, but this support must demand a quick resolution and keep a sharp eye. US officials don’t want to give a blank check to Pakistan and Obama shouldn’t expect a black check from the American people to spend in Afghanistan.

Both parties will benefit.

If this marriage is looking grim it’s because Afghanistan is on the verge. Seven years, if Gibbs is correct, plays against the odds of victory. Obama might even understand this much because he’s exploring divorce as a substitute to death. Much of his “new” strategy might not be so new, but one part certainly changed. Once a hardcore Taliban Terminator, Obama has blessed Saudi Arabian negotiation with Mullah Omar.

Special envoy Richard Holbrooke confirmed, “I have talked to the Saudis. I’ve been to Riyadh. I talked to King Abdullah about it myself. We would be supportive of anything that the kingdom chose to do in this regard.”

The Saudi newspaper Al Watan reported that Karl Eikenberry, US Ambassador to Afghanistan, held talks with Mulla Mutawakil, former Taliban Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Kabul. Eikenberry supposedly offered to recognize Taliban rule in a handful of provinces including Kandahar, Helmand, Kunar, and Nuristan. In return, the Taliban must stop their attacks on foreign forces so that reconstruction can progress.

This means Mullah Omar’s message on the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday wasn’t just celebratory, but a direct diplomatic response.

"The invaders do not want negotiation aimed at granting independence to Afghanistan and ending their invasion but they want negotiation which will prolong their evil process of colonisation and occupation,” his message read on the Taliban’s website.

Yet the way this shotgun wedding is looking, negotiations may be the only way to escape alive. They’re bound to get worse after the addition of 30,000 US troops, the bulk of which are headed to Helmand and Kandahar, and the Taliban’s own recruits.

America and Mullah Omar are talking though. Not nicely, but Afghanistan will be an ugly divorce.

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