Hoover Daily Report

Afghanistan and the Decline of American Power

via Wall Street Journal
Friday, April 9, 2010

The Wall Street Journal

Afghanistan and the Decline of American Power

President Karzai's anti-American shift is a statement about the standing of the Obama administration in the region.


President Obama's "war of necessity" in Afghanistan increasingly has to it the mark of a military campaign disconnected from a bigger political strategy.

Yes, it is true, he "inherited" this war. But in his fashion he embraced it and held it up as a rebuke to the Iraq war. The spectacle of Afghan President Hamid Karzai going rogue on the American and NATO allies who prop up his regime is of a piece with other runaway clients in far-off lands learning that great, distant powers can be defied and manipulated with impunity. After all, Mr. Karzai has been told again and again that his country, the safe harbor from which al Qaeda planned and carried out 9/11, is essential to winning the war on terror.

Some months ago, our envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, saw into the heart of the matter in a memo to his superiors. Mr. Eikenberry was without illusions about President Karzai. He dismissed him as a leader who continues to shun "responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and his circle don't want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending war on terror and for military bases to use against surrounding powers."

The Eikenberry memorandum lays to rest once and for all the legend of Afghanistan as a "graveyard of empires." Rather than seeking an end to the foreign military presence, the Afghans and their leader seek to perpetuate it. It spares them the hard choice of building a nation-state, knitting together feuding ethnicities and provinces, and it brings them enormous foreign treasure.

Mr. Karzai may be unusually brazen and vainglorious in his self-regard. He may have been acting out of a need to conciliate the Pashtun community from which he hails and which continues to see him as the front man for a regime that gives the Tajiks disproportionate power and influence. But his conduct is at one with the ways of Afghan warlords and chieftains.

Still, this recent dust-up with Mr. Karzai—his outburst against the West, his melodramatic statement that he, too, could yet join the Taliban in a campaign of "national resistance," his indecent warning that those American and NATO forces soldiering to give his country a chance are on the verge of becoming foreign occupiers—is a statement about the authority of the Obama administration and its standing in Afghanistan and the region.

Forgive Mr. Karzai as he tilts with the wind and courts the Iranian theocrats next door. We can't chastise him for seeking an accommodation with Iranian power when Washington itself gives every indication that it would like nothing more than a grand bargain with Iran's rulers.

In Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East, populations long in the path, and in the shadow, of great foreign powers have a good feel for the will and staying power of those who venture into their world. If Iran's bid for nuclear weapons and a larger role in the region goes unchecked, and if Iran is now a power of the Mediterranean (through Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Beirut), the leaders in Kabul, whoever they are, are sure to do their best to secure for themselves an Iranian insurance policy.

From the very beginning of Mr. Obama's stewardship of the Afghan war, there was an odd, unsettling disjunction between the centrality given this war and the reluctance to own it in full, to stay and fight until victory (a word this administration shuns) is ours.

Consider the very announcement of the Obama war strategy last November in Mr. Obama's West Point address. The speech was at once the declaration of a "surge" and the announcement of an exit strategy. Additional troops would be sent, but their withdrawal would begin in the summer of 2011.

The Afghans, and their interested neighbors, were invited to do their own calculations. Some could arrive at a judgment that the war and its frustrations would mock such plans, that military campaigns such as the one in Afghanistan are far easier to launch than to bring to a decent conclusion, that American pride and credibility are destined to leave America entangled in Afghan troubles for many years to come. (By all indications, Mr. Karzai seems to subscribe to this view.)

Others could bet on our war weariness, for Americans have never shown an appetite for the tribal and ethnic wars of South Asia and the Middle East. The shadow of our power lies across that big region, it is true. But we blow in and out of these engagements, generally not staying long enough to assure our friends and frighten our enemies.

Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator who recast Pakistani politics away from that country's secular beginnings and plunged into the jihad and its exertions, once memorably observed that being an ally of the United States was like sitting on the bank of a great river where the ground is lush and fertile, but that every four to eight years the river changes course and the unsuspecting friend of American power finds himself in a barren desert. Mr. Obama has not given the protagonists in the Afghan war the certainty that he is in it for the long haul.

In word and deed, Mr. Obama has given a sense of his priorities. The passion with which he pursued health-care reform could be seen at home and abroad as the drive of a man determined to remake the American social contract. He aims to tilt the balance away from liberty toward equality. The very ambition of his domestic agenda in health care and state intervention in the economy conveys the causes that stir him.

Granted, Mullah Omar and his men in the Quetta Shura may not be seasoned observers of Washington's ways. But they (and Mr. Karzai) can discern if America is marking time, giving it one last try before casting Afghanistan adrift. It is an inescapable fact that Mr. Obama hasn't succeeded in selling this Afghan venture—or even the bigger war on terror itself—to his supporters on the left. He fights the war with Republican support, but his constituency remains isolationist at heart.

The president has in his command a great fighting force and gifted commanders. He clearly hopes they will succeed. But there is always the hint that this Afghan campaign became the good, worthwhile war by default, a cause with which to bludgeon his predecessor's foray into Iraq.

All this plays out under the gaze of an Islamic world that is coming to a consensus that a discernible American retreat in the region is in the works. America's enemies are increasingly brazen, its friends unnerved. Witness the hapless Lebanese, once wards of U.S. power, now making pilgrimages, one leader at a time, to Damascus. They, too, can read the wind: If Washington is out to "engage" that terrible lot in Syria, they better scurry there to secure reasonable terms of surrender.

The shadow of American power is receding; the rogues are emboldened. The world has a way of calling the bluff of leaders and nations summoned to difficult endeavors. Would that our biggest source of worry in that arc of trouble was the intemperate outburst of our ally in Kabul.

Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is the author of "The Foreigner's Gift" (Free Press, 2007).