The Other I

November 17, 2009

Afghanistan: When there’s no right answer

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 5:02 pm

Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, in a speech last night said that Britain is drawing up plans for beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2010.  Since the former prime minister Tony Blair followed George Bush (“like a poodle” according to some journalists over here) into Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m wondering what this stance by Gordon Brown actually means.  There seem to be three possibilities:

  • Obama has signalled that the US is going to begin to withdraw troops in the near term.  The UK is going along.
  • The Afghan war is becoming increasingly unpopular here in Britain, and Brown is facing an election within the next six months.  He and his party are unpopular, and this may be one of his many attempts to meet populist demands.  Whoever is elected, in any case, is the one who will have to either implement or change Afghan war.  It is unlikely to be Brown.
  • Brown and his advisers really do believe the war is unwinnable are willing to cut their losses, no matter what America does.

I suspect the second is the reason, but hope it is the first.  But the real anguish is to look at the options that Obama has in relation to Afghanistan.  Every single one of them is fraught with terrible risks and potentially catastrophic consequences:

  • We can continue on the course we have been on for eight years.  This is leading to increasing military deaths, Afghans themselves are not rallying to the side of the West, costs are escalating, and the influence of the Taliban in the villages has not been checked but is actually growing.  And the presence of foreign troops and killing of civilians is increasing anti-American feeling.
  • We can follow General McChrystal’s  advice and send in 40-60,000 more troops.  This means more casualties and higher costs which are already billions of dollars a year, and still may accomplish little in the long-term.  The current Afghan government is corrupt and unlikely to be able to stop a resurgence of the Taliban when troops do withdraw.  Or we may be there for decades.  It is even possible that additional foreign troops will make the situation even worse than it is now.
  • We could reduce troop numbers and concentrate on the towns and cities in the centre and north of the country.  Unfortunately, this means the Taliban would expand their influence in rural areas, warlords and drug barons will continue in control.  It’s a reduced version of continuing the war as we are.
  • Finally, we can withdraw altogether.  The Afghan government is likely to fail, leading to civil war and a Taliban takeover.  This could also destabilize Pakistan.  If the Taliban or Al Qaeda take over Pakistan, they will gain control of its nuclear arsenal.  We might negotiate an agreement with Pakistan to secure their nuclear arsenal in the event they are threatened by the Taliban or Al Qaeda but of course, this may be merely an ineffective fig leaf.

The mistake, I fear, was ever to send troops into Afghanistan.  But the past cannot be undone.  Now Obama is faced with deciding how to try to go forward from where we are.

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