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Obama’s Wrong Road in Afghanistan

Sounding a bit like John Kerry during the 2004 election campaign, President Barack Obama plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan before de-escalating it. The administration should have abandoned the feckless nation-building strategy of the Bush years and refocused instead on the main mission: neutralizing al-Qaeda while avoiding instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The attempt to bring about what likely will be only temporary stability in Afghanistan by increasing U.S. forces there is not a long-term solution, just as it probably won’t provide a lasting solution in Iraq.

The Taliban, who are not the same as al-Qaeda, now control 70 percent of Afghanistan—primarily outside the cities. They seem to have learned a lesson from their 2001 ouster from power by the U.S. military and don’t appear to be sheltering al-Qaeda training camps in the remote countryside. Thus, securing the cities, which is at the heart of the new U.S. strategy, seems to have little bearing on U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

The war is a no-win situation for the president. Signaling that the U.S. commitment will eventually wind down to mollify the American public, which is weary of war and massive government red ink during a recession, will only embolden the Afghan Taliban to outwait the United States—just as the North Vietnamese did in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, when President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated that failed war in the late 1960s he had several advantages that Obama lacks: a strong economy to pay for the war, the backing of the U.S. public, and a credible South Vietnamese army to do much of the heavy lifting.

Creating capable Afghan security forces will take much longer than the five years Afghan President Hamid Karzai set as a reasonable timetable. Karzai is a seriously flawed “partner,” and our “ally,” the Pakistani government, is unlikely to crack down on the Afghan Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan because Pakistan will want a pro-Pakistan Taliban government in Afghanistan when the U.S. eventually leaves, to counter India’s influence in the area.

Rather than adding to our current woes, President Obama should have recalled what John Kerry said after he returned from Vietnam as a war hero: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The bad news is that even under the best of scenarios, the Taliban will never be eradicated from Afghanistan, and likely will become part of the Afghan government. The United States should accept that reality and withdraw its forces from Afghanistan before squandering any more lives and money.

Any Taliban-influenced or Taliban-run government will not necessarily shelter al-Qaeda again. People do learn from traumatic experiences—for example, the Germans and Japanese after World War II—and the U.S. invasion and ouster of the Taliban should make the group more reluctant to harbor al-Qaeda in the future.

This outcome is made easier because the Taliban’s primary interest is getting the United States out of Afghanistan and getting itself back into power. In contrast, al-Qaeda’s interest is in global jihad, which is being fueled by the U.S. (“infidel”) occupation of Afghanistan.

Any Taliban-related Afghan government will need the support of Pakistan, which can be influenced by the United States. If the Pakistanis cooperate and put pressure on a Taliban government not to shelter al-Qaeda, the United States could offer Pakistan what it most wants: mediation to bring India back to their discontinued bilateral talks.

If Pakistan fails to rein in a Taliban-controlled government in neighboring Afghanistan, the United States could threaten to realign with India against Pakistan—a nightmare for the Pakistanis.

The current nation-building quagmire of Afghanistan is just fomenting more militancy and jihad and does not need to be escalated; deep down, Obama knows it. Rather than squandering more U.S. blood and treasure, the president should have concentrated on neutralizing al-Qaeda and dissuading the inevitable Taliban government in Afghanistan from harboring the group.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

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