Defining Ideas

Obama’s Afghan Struggle

Friday, March 20, 2009
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution

We face today the oddest and most unexpected of spectacles: the Iraq war has been vindicated, whereas the war in Afghanistan looks like a hopeless undertaking in an impossible land.

This is not what the opponents of the Iraq war had foreseen. After all, Afghanistan was the good war of necessity; Iraq was the war of “choice” in the wrong place.

The Afghan struggle was in truth a rod with which to beat the Bush administration for its quest in Iraq. Some time ago, Democratic Party strategist Robert Shrum owned up to this fact: “I was part of the 2004 Kerry campaign, which elevated the idea of Afghanistan as the ‘right war’ to conventional Democratic wisdom. This was accurate as criticism but also reflexive and perhaps by now even misleading as policy.”

The opponents of the American project in Iraq did not know much about Afghanistan. They despaired of Iraq’s sectarianism and ethnic fragmentation, but those pale in comparison with the tribalism and ethnic complications of Afghanistan. If you had your fill of the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites of Iraq, welcome to the warring histories of the Pashtuns, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, and the Hazara Shiites of Afghanistan.

In their disdain for that Iraq project, the Democrats and the liberal left insisted that Iraq was an artificial state put together by colonial fiat and that it was a fool’s errand to try to make it whole and intact. Now, in Afghanistan, we are in the quintessential world of banditry and tribalism, a political culture that has abhorred and resisted central authority.

Speak of colonial fiat! It was the Pax Britannica that drew the Durand Line of 1892 across the lands of the Pashtuns and marked out a meaningless border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It should have taken no great literacy in the theories and the history of state building to foresee the favorable endowments of Iraq and the built-in disadvantages of Afghanistan.

Man battled the elements in Mesopotamia, and the desert and its ways of plunder and raiding pushed against urban life; but the land gave rise to powerful kingdoms: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Abbasids. In more modern times, oil and the central treasury knit the place together, often in terror but together nonetheless.

Contrast this with Afghanistan’s impassable mountains, anarchic ways, poppy cultivation, and culture of warlords and bandits. A Nouri Al-Maliki in Baghdad can dispense oil largesse and draw the provinces toward the capital; a Hamid Karzai in Kabul is what foreign donors and benefactors make him and enable him to do.

The flattering cliché that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires” is a hollow boast. Empires that wandered there did so by default, for there never was anything in Afghanistan—save for geography—that outsiders coveted. It was the primitiveness of the place—the landscape that evoked the imagined early centuries of Islam’s beginnings—and its age-old way of extracting booty from outsiders that drew the Arab jihadists, and their financiers and handlers, to Afghanistan.

Now the Democrats own this Afghan struggle. They have to explain and defend it in the midst of a mood of introversion in our national life. It is hard to sound the trumpet at a time of economic distress. Plainly, our country has been living on its nerves since September 11, 2001. It had not willed an Islamic imperium, but it got one. It was bequeathed this terrible duty by the upheaval in the lands of the Arab-Islamic world and by the guile and cunning of a generation of jihadists and their enablers, who deflected the wrath of their people onto distant American power.

President George W. Bush answered history’s call—as he saw fit. The country gave him its warrant and acceptance and then withdrew it in the latter years of his presidency. Say what you will about his call to vigilance, he had a coherent worldview. He held the line when the world of Islam was truly in the wind and played on by ruinous temptations. He took the war on terror into the heart of the Arab world. It was Arabs—with oil money and with the prestige that comes with their mastery of Arabic, the language of the Koran, among impressionable Pakistanis and Afghans—who made Afghanistan the menace it became. Without Arab money and Arab doctrines of political Islam, the Taliban would have remained a group of reactionary seminarians, a terror to its own people but of no concern beyond. It thus made perfect strategic sense to take the fight to the Arab heartland of Islam. Saddam Hussein had drawn the short straw.

President Barack Obama—another “decider” with an expanded view of the presidency’s power—faces a wholly different challenge. It was economic distress that delivered the state into his stewardship. A cerebral man, he has presented himself as a “realist” in foreign affairs. Not for him is the Bush “heat” about liberty in distant lands.

By the appearance of things, President Obama is undecided about Afghanistan. He has neither embraced this war nor ditched it. In a perfect world, the AfPak (Afghanistan/Pakistan) theater would hold still as the administration struggles with AIG, the crisis in Detroit, and the selling of the budget. But the world is not perfect, and sooner or later the administration will have used up the luxury of indecision. It will not be easy for this president to summon this nation to a bigger endeavor in Afghanistan. Set aside his fear that his domestic agenda could be compromised by a bold undertaking far from home; the foreign world simply does not beckon this president.

In fairness to him, his hesitancy in the face of foreign challenges is a fair reflection of the country’s fatigue with causes beyond its borders. He could link Afghanistan with September 11 and with the wider war on terror, but he has put forth the word that the vigilance and zeal of that struggle are best forgotten. By his admonition, we are not to speak of the global war on terror. The world is full of reconcilers and deal makers, one and all in Damascus and Tehran and Palestine. In the Obama worldview, it is now time for diplomatic accommodations.

The president is on the horns of a dilemma of his own making. In his determination to be the “un-Bush,” he has declared his intention to repair what some have called “Brand America” and to pursue a nonideological foreign policy of multilateralism and moderation. His aloofness from what played out in Iraq is a hindrance to him when it comes to issuing any call to arms in Afghanistan.

Sooner or later the administration will have used up the luxury of indecision.

He can’t build on the Iraq victory because he has never really embraced it. The occasional statement that we can win over the reconcilers and the tribes in Afghanistan the way we did in Iraq’s Anbar Province is lame and unconvincing. The Anbar turned only when the Sunni insurgents had become convinced that the Americans were there to stay and that the alternative to accommodation with the Americans, and with the Baghdad government, was a sure and widespread Sunni defeat. The Taliban is nowhere near this reckoning. If anything, the uncertain mood in Washington counsels patience on its part, with the hope of waiting out the American presence.

President Obama does not have to offer the Iraq campaign post facto vindication. But as he does battle in the same wider theater of that greater Middle East, he will have to draw the proper lessons of the Iraq campaign. This Afghan war can’t be waged in stealth or in silence. Half measures will not do. This war will have to be explained—or explained away. For it to have any chance, it will have to be claimed and owned up to even in the midst of our economic distress. It’s odd that so articulate a president has not yet found the language with which to describe this war and the American stakes in it.