President Obama’s Afghan Gamble

Until Tuesday evening the Afghan war was a Bush legacy. It is now President Barack Obama’s war and history will judge him on the success of his bold gamble to send more troops to Afghanistan.

The situation there is dire and deteriorating. There is no guarantee more troops and a smart strategy will work to stabilize the country and defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But the alternatives – drawing down or standing pat – are certain to fail. The President’s approach is the best of the bad options Americans have. The stakes are enormous – preventing another 9/11, war in South Asia, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the fate of NATO and future of the global Islamic jihad. To succeed, the President will have to invest not just more American and NATO troops, but also his political capital to convince a war weary country to persevere. Obama’s war may come to consume his Presidency.

President Obama inherited a disaster in Afghanistan from a predecessor who neglected the war for seven years and failed to resource it properly. A brilliant victory in 2001 achieved at little cost was lost by the Bush-Cheney team which dithered in Afghanistan as it obsessed with Iraq. The Taliban, with Al Qaeda’s help, made a spectacular comeback. Mullah Omar, the self-styled commander of the faithful, has to be given his due – crushed in 2001, today he stands on the cusp of defeating the NATO army. The surge in Iraq in 2007 was a further setback for Afghanistan: the distracted Americans lost focus, allowing the Taliban to drive into the south and east.

The situation has gotten worse in the last year but it is not yet hopeless. The Afghan presidential election was a disaster for the war effort. President Karzai cheated (with over a million fraudulent ballots), got caught and got away with it. The international community failed Afghanistan. The result is an Afghan partner that lacks legitimacy, perhaps a fatal blow to the war effort. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have her hands full trying to get the best out of Karzai. Fortunately, some of his war cabinet members are first rate.

The United States and its partners in Afghanistan confront a syndicate of terrorist groups in the badlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are not a monolith, nor do they have a single agenda. They have no single leader, although most groups (including Al Qaeda) swear allegiance to Mullah Omar. But they work together, they inspire each other and often they protect each other. A victory for the syndicate in Afghanistan would have enormous implications throughout the Islamic world. It would symbolize dramatically that the global Islamic jihad movement was on the march.

Last week Omar sent an internet message to Americans. He rejected any negotiations with the United States or the Karzai government. He promised “bitterness and pain” for the NATO army in Afghanistan and the reinforcements Obama is sending. Omar is a remarkably secretive man who has met with less than a handful of non-Muslims in his life and prides himself on his piety and simple life. His location is a closely guarded secret. Normally taciturn, this message is his longest ever, a reflection of the importance of the moment.

At the end of the message he appeals to the entire Islamic community to join in the jihad against America. He lauds the mujahedeen fighters in Iraq, Palestine and other countries fighting America, thus associating himself with the global Islamic jihad movement. He has done this in previous messages but more forcefully than ever this year. This message is designed to portray the Taliban as both an anti-colonial nationalist movement and part of the larger jihad against the Crusader Americans. This may be a response to criticisms of an earlier message this fall that seemed more nationalist than jihadist. Omar is saying he is both. He is appealing to the broadest base he can. But, in fact, the Taliban is seen by Afghans as a Pashtun movement, which is a critical weakness since a majority of Afghans are not Pashtuns. The Taliban can win only by intimidating the non-Pashtun majority as it did in the 1990s when the United States abandoned Afghanistan.

The impact of a Taliban victory now would be felt most immediately in Pakistan where a weak civilian government is already tottering. The Pakistani army, which has long had close ties to parts of the syndicate (especially Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Afghan Taliban), would have to make adjustments to live with a victorious Taliban next door. The Pakistani Taliban would be emboldened to push for a jihadist state in Islamabad. India’s own enormous Muslim minority would face the danger of radicalization. Central Asia would be infested with Taliban inspired violence. Moderate Muslim voices throughout the Islamic world would be on the defensive.

Last week Indian Prime Minister Singh delivered a strong message to the United States – don’t go wobbly on Afghanistan. The soft-spoken Singh was very direct and candid in describing the stakes in an interview with the Washington Post on the eve of his meetings with Obama. Singh said “a victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan would have catastrophic consequences for the world, particularly for South Asia, for Central Asia and for the Middle East. Religious fundamentalism in the 1980s was used to defeat the Soviet Union. If this same group of people that defeated the Soviet Union now defeats the other major power, this would embolden them in a manner which could have catastrophic consequences for the world.”

The Prime Minister’s assessment comes after the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack since September 11, 2001, the assault on Mumbai a year ago by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group. That assault had all the hallmarks of the global Islamic jihad in its tactics and targets. The attack on Mumbai, which was the first crisis in the world after Obama’s election last November, had an important impact on Obama’s thinking and is undoubtedly part of the reason why he made dealing with the jihadist threat in Pakistan and Afghanistan his highest foreign policy priority.

The United States has strong partners in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan. The NATO alliance has made Afghanistan its first ever ground war and the alliance’s future will now be decided in the Hindu Kush, the mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over forty countries have troops on the ground in Afghanistan. India has already provided $1.2 billion in economic aid to the effort of building a new Afghan parliament and a critical road project linking Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea via Iran. Japan has provided key aid to the police. Australia, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates all have sent troops.

The nations of the international community trying to help Kabul can still succeed in Afghanistan if they explain to their domestic audiences why it is so important to succeed. This must mean more than a single eloquent speech. It means a sustained campaign by the President and his cabinet to explain why we must stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan in the face of mounting casualties and expense. It means executing a hard strategy with resolve and tenacity. It’s a gamble with high stakes for America and Obama.