Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan

Yesterday I gave my sense of the direction the Obama administration is likely to go on domestic policy. When it comes to foreign policy, I expect continuing trouble in the coming years, perhaps even worse (if you can imagine it) than what we experienced during the Bush years.

Obama may be able to fulfill his campaign promise to get out of Iraq fairly soon but I worry about his repeatedly stated goal to escalate the war in Afghanistan. The latter country has long been a pawn in geopolitical games played by big powers and its people have suffered tremendously as a consequence. It has also historically been a graveyard for foreign armies and there is no reason to expect anything otherwise this time. It is true that Obama is putting more pragmatic and less warmongering ideologues in the top ranks of the defense and security agencies but that in itself is no guarantee of a good result.

The fact that his administration is stacked with people who have plenty of formal academic credentials is no guarantee that they will not create huge foreign policy disasters. We have to remember that the incoming John F. Kennedy administration also brought with them an ivy-league educated technocratic elite. As chronicled in David Halberstam’s memorable book The Best and the Brightest, they got America hopelessly mired in Vietnam. Even the ‘best’ technocracy cannot make a bad policy successful, and trying to remake other countries to one’s own liking by invading them is always bad policy, not to mention a clear and unequivocal violation of international law and morally unjustifiable.

If Obama is not careful, Afghanistan could be his Vietnam, the millstone around his neck the way Iraq was for Bush. His best hope might be for a new intelligence report to come out that Osama bin Laden is dead, which some intelligence people already believe to be true given his long absence from the public eye, and use that to say that the battle is over, the man responsible for 9/11 is gone, and that it is time to put that event in the past and move on. (The release last week of an audiotape by bin Laden, if it turns out to be recent and authentic, will dash that hope.)

Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai has given Obama an opening by calling for a timetable for a withdrawal of US troops and he should seize it.

This does not mean that the US can wash its hands of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two countries have suffered terribly because of US actions and we have a moral obligation to help them rebuild the infrastructure that we have been party to destroying. Sarah Chayes gives an eye-opening account of the problems in Afghanistan and how the corruption of the US-supported Karzai government is increasing the influence of the repressive Taliban and the warlords.

It is unfortunately true that unstable states tend to bring to power the most hard line extremists and Afghanistan is a good example of that, where the Taliban gained power because of its ability to bring about order, even though it represents a brutal and repressive Islamist ideology. But the disorder that provided them with this window of opportunity did not arise spontaneously. As I pointed out nearly two years ago there was a deliberate US policy decision taken by the Carter administration to intervene and destabilize Afghanistan so as to lure the Soviet Union into invading that country, so that they would get stuck in their equivalent of Vietnam. The Carter administration did this by having the CIA begin aiding the Islamic forces called the Mujahadeen in July 1979, six months before the Soviets invaded.

As a result of that invasion, Afghanistan has been in turmoil ever since. The US supplied arms and ammunition (including sophisticated Stinger surface-to-air missiles) to the Mujahadeen fighting the Soviet army, and the Soviet Union eventually was forced to withdraw in 1989, leaving behind a government they had put in place. But that government was unstable and collapsed in 1992, leading to a period of instability. The Taliban, originally a loose confederation of local units, became a unified body in 1994, gained popularity surprisingly quickly, and took over the government in 1996. The founder of the Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar was once a Mujahadeen fighter.

Current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was at that time executive assistant to Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzerzinski, the architect of that inhuman strategy, that saw the people of Afghanistan as merely expendable pawns in superpower political games. (Brzerzinski is one of those political chameleons who is now re-branding himself as a ‘sensible’ foreign policy voice because of his mild criticisms of Bush’s Iraq war policy.)

There is a rich irony in Obama now having Gates in charge of fighting the very forces in Afghanistan that he once helped create. But for the long-suffering Afghan people, caught in the middle of a war involving the US and its NATO allies, its puppet Karzai government, the Taliban successors to former US proxies the Mujahadeen, and the warlords, this is no laughing matter. Right now it seems that the US is trying to combat the Taliban by supporting the warlords, the very people whose oppressive and exploitative behavior resulted in the Taliban gaining popularity because they drove the warlords from power.

The US owes the Afghan and Iraqi people a huge debt for what it has put them through. The best way to do that is to focus on building roads, hospitals, schools, and providing good government wherever it has control. Otherwise the people will have no incentive whatsoever to risk the wrath of the brutal Taliban and warlords. It is when people have an interest in preserving their society that they will oppose, often with great courage and sacrifice, those who seek to oppress them.

So while I do not expect much from Obama, I hope that he will at least do the following: end the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, help rebuild those shattered countries, and end the practice of torture and renditions. On the last point on torture, some of his appointments for the Justice Department give a glimmer of hope.

So on the day of his inauguration, I wish Obama well. He at least starts out with one big advantage. No president could be as appallingly bad as the George W. Bush.

POST SCRIPT: Ah, memories!

Marcus Brigstocke during last year’s campaign.


  1. says

    Dear Professor,
    I was pleasantly surprised that Obama included non-believers in his inaugural address to the nation today. What did you make of this inclusion?

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