Jonathan Power: How About a “Re-Entry Strategy” for Afghanistan?

“We must have an exit strategy [for Afghanistan],” said President Barack Obama on 60 Minutes this past Sunday night. But after seven years of steadily losing the war in Afghanistan isn’t a “re-entry strategy” more appropriate?

In a month’s time, Obama will descend on NATO at its Brussels headquarters and insist that the Europeans help out. Well before then, Obama will have on his desk the interagency policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan that he has requested.

We should be able to guess its bias, if not every detail of its contents. The review committee is being chaired by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a senior advisor to three U.S. presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues. His views are easily accessible on the Brookings Institution website.

My first reaction upon reading them is why on earth didn’t Obama give the job to his old mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski or to Brent Scowcroft, the wise owl of previous Republican administrations (but not the last one). Why choose some lower level official who is used to being bossed around and told what to do? Both Brzezinski and Scowcroft have experience in standing close to a president and also, when necessary, standing up to him.

The answer, I fear, is that the two most practiced men on foreign policy (excepting perhaps Henry Kissinger, who has already made clear his doubts on Washington’s Afghanistan policy) wouldn’t tow the White House party line. Obama made the decision to raise the stakes in Afghanistan and Pakistan way back in his presidential campaign. Was it to counterbalance his Iraq withdrawal position to show that he wasn’t soft on the use of military power abroad? Bill Clinton used this gambit, calling for the expansion of NATO to win crucial votes in the American midwest from Poles and other Eastern Europeans in the diaspora, even though hardly anyone in the U.S. or European foreign affairs community was calling for it?

Riedel, to his credit, does say some sensible things: “The war in Afghanistan is going badly, the southern half of the country is in chaos…and in Pakistan, the jihadist Frankenstein monster that was created by the Pakistani army and Pakistani intelligence service is now increasingly turning on its creators.” He goes on to say that the missile attacks inside Pakistan “have a counterproductive element in them…the American brand image has been badly eroded.” Nevertheless, says Riedel, the momentum of the Taliban “has to be broken.”

But we know all that.

So what does he advocate as a solution?

Quite simply, he advocates more troops. A shrewd guess is that this is how the report will turn out—with a promise that the commitment is not open ended and that the burden for the long run must fall on the soldiers of a well-trained and equipped Afghan security force.

Is that an exit strategy? Hardly. In Vietnam, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger tried to turn things over to a local army. In the end, the Americans had to be evacuated from the roof of the Saigon embassy. The war devastated the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, crushing his ambitions and plans for a “Great Society,” one that (as planned) would have been similar to the social policies that Obama now seems intent on creating.

Is all this forgotten? Or is Obama a little too young to have the memory of Vietnam and similar debacles seared on his soul? I fear so.

Why should the Americans and NATO have any more luck than the Red Army, which put the finest Soviet troops into battle in Afghanistan? Western armies may have more firepower today—and far more sophisticated technology—but in the difficult terrain of Afghanistan, where the Taliban know every creek and molehill, they face an enemy not unlike the Vietcong, who likewise knew every tree in the jungle.

It is time to find another way?

Withdraw most of the military. Leave behind peacekeepers and switch them into blue helmets by order of the UN Security Council. Ask Interpol to assist the CIA in tracking down Osama bin Laden. Recruit and hire people who speak Pashto to do the hard digging of investigative work, with the FBI and Scotland Yard making available the latest forensic techniques and all the modern technology of big time police forces.

Surely, there are clues to be found—I recall the former Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, telling me that intelligence agencies should focus on the border areas where U.S. dollars are used as currency. But he hadn’t the guts to stand up to Washington or offer an alternative to war in neighboring Afghanistan.

As the conflict drags on, brute force increasingly looks like it’s not the answer.



Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor ofProspect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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