Commentary Magazine


re: Obama Emboldened Taliban in SOTU

I fully agree with Max Boot: Obama emboldened the Taliban with his timeline for withdrawal. Such statements may run afoul of the White House spin machine, but it’s important therefore to see how Afghans perceive the speech.  From Kabul’s 1TV in Dari today with a translation from the Open Source Center, here’s former deputy interior minister General Abdol Hadi Khaled:

Insurgency has now spread to almost all parts of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is very insecure. Threats to the security of Afghanistan and the region have increased by a long way. There is a very high level of interference by the neighbors, especially of Pakistan and Iran, in Afghanistan’s affairs. Their withdrawal at this time is a decision they have taken and their decision is not their reaction to the realities on the ground in Afghanistan and the region.

Afghans have never lost a war: They just defect to the winning side. The Taliban may have steamrolled through Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. But they relied more on momentum and defection of their enemies than on their own military prowess. This time, the civil war will likely be worse: There are more power centers, and both Iran and Pakistan are emboldened. Rather than aim for victory, it seems Obama is determined to bring defeat.

What’s the alternative? If we strip away the mission creep and the ill-considered efforts at development, we are in Afghanistan for a simple reason: Before 9/11, a vacuum developed in the country and terrorists took root. From their Afghan safe-haven, the reached out and attacked us. The goal of the U.S. mission was to fill that vacuum, creating a government that could control the territory of Afghanistan and security forces capable of monopolizing the use of force.

Former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s desire to strongly centralize the government, however, traded short-term dividends for long-term difficulties for which we are now paying the price as the Karzai government does more harm than good as it chafes provincial leaders. Still, Afghan security forces are a formidable counter-insurgency force–and some units may actually stay together after the U.S. departure–albeit their loyalty to the central government could be more fleeting. Under a best-case scenario, however, the Afghan security forces are challenged tremendously by logistics, triage, and intelligence, without which they will be unable to counter the Pakistan-backed Taliban effectively.  More time training the security forces would help, and the U.S. government could mitigate that expense by withdrawing the ineffective USAID mission and any diplomat whose job does not require them to leave their compound’s perimeter.  But, absent that, the discussion Obama should have is not simply whether to withdraw troops “on schedule” but rather what alternate strategy he has in place to fill the vacuum their withdrawal risks creating.

It is that vacuum that is deadly. It is, after all, the reason why the United States had to become involved in Afghanistan initially.