Both candidates are wrong about Afghanistan

Policy Watch:  The election of Barack Obama vs. John McCain is ostensibly between two moderates, although on domestic policy I would define Obama as a classic liberal with a moderate temperament and McCain as more unorthodox than either moderate, liberal or conservative.

On foreign policy, however, McCain’s instincts come across as a belligerent Wilsonian, what used to be known as a "liberal hawk" but is now known as a "neoconservative".  Obama pays lip service to the "realist" foreign policy of George HW Bush (from the traditonally conservative camp), talks tough about surging troops into Afghanistan and potentially invading nuclear-armed Pakistan, yet otherwise reminds me of Jimmy Carter. 

In terms of the sweep of American history since World War II, it’s actually kind of a weird choice to have to make.  The current president Bush, while generally viewed as a extremist warmonger due to the invasion of Iraq, is actually more of a moderate than either McCain or Obama appear to be, if you look at his administration’s foreign policy in toto (not their talk, but their actions)

This is not a political blog, and I certainly don’t want to get involved in a fight about the Bush administration.  I do, however, care about geopolitics and its effect on our national interests and the world trading and security system.  I feel compelled to point out that much of the Sturm und Drang surrounding the foreign policy debate in the 2008 election is divorced from reality.  On the two big foreign policy issues of the election the two candidates will end up having the exact same policy.

The first is the War in Iraq.  They will both end up with the same policy in Iraq because we have won the war.  McCain won’t admit we’ve won, because he wants to use it to paint Obama as a wimp.  Obama won’t admit we’ve won, because half his base wants us to lose to prove George Bush wrong.  It’s example A of the classic baby boomer polarization that Obama deplores on the stump, and he’s right to, but on this one he won’t overcome it because opposition to the War in Iraq was the original thrust of his candidacy against Hillary Clinton.  Either way, US troop levels in Iraq will come down dramatically over the next two years and both candidates will leave a remnant force like we have in South Korea.

The second is the War in Afghanistan.  Both candidates want to surge more troops into Afghanistan to build up its democracy and fully defeat the remnants of the Taliban.  On this point I think both candidates are wrong.

I am one of those strange ducks that supported the War in Iraq and is ho-hum about the "Good War" in Afghanistan.  I looked at Iraq as important geopolitically, but fell more into the Joe Biden camp of overthrowing Saddam and then carving the country into three states.  I was less concerned about building a democracy there, but felt that the best chance of doing so lay in creating three mostly ethnically homogeneous states.  I understood the geopolitical logic of keeping the country intact to avoid the Shiite south becoming a vassal state of Iran, but felt that the risk/reward was less favorable than breaking the country up.

I am not a big believer in the viability of democracies in multi-ethnic nation states whose borders were drawn by european powers.  If you look at most of the hotspots since the end of the Cold War (Yugoslavia, the Caucuses, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Sudan, most African countries and, potentially soon, Pakistan) they all have borders drawn by western powers, usually designed to factionalize the internal population so their imperial masters could play them off one another.

Afghanistan, in fact, is only a country because it is the area that couldn’t be conquered by the British or Russians during the "Great Game" era of the 1800s.  Within its borders are Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group), Hazeris, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Balochis and Turkmens, among others.  There are no actual "Afghans", other than in a we-get-to-send-a-delegation-to-the-United Nations sense.  The Taliban came from the Pashtuns in the south of the country.  Our allies in the overthrow of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, consisted of non-Pashtuns in the north. 

No offense to the citizens of Afghanistan, but it is also one of the most backward countries in the world.  I can’t quite understand why people think it is a waste of time to nation-build in Iraq, a relatively advanced country with the potential to be quite weathy, but are excited to do so in Afghanistan, a mountainous and rugged country that resisted the British, czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, all of which tried alot harder to subdue the country than NATO ever would.

Our national interest in Afghanistan lies only with keeping the remaining al Qaeda terrorists in the region off-balance enough that they can’t operate with impunity and plan attacks.  Right now, even though some of them are alive, the old al Qaeda hierarchy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been heavily degraded.  It would be easier to plot and execute an attack on the US from Germany than from Afghanistan, and neither would be very easy.  If the goal is to co-opt the Pashtun into politcs, then perhaps carve out a separate Pashtunistan in the south with its capital in Kandahar, and leave the remaining grab bag as "Afghanistan" in the north, with its capital in Kabul.  Sure, the Taliban might come back to power, but if they are forced to actually govern and don’t have the excuse of needing to fight the Northern Alliance, they are far more likely to be internally-focused rather than wasting their time thinking about plotting attacks on the US, halfway around the world.  Besides, the Bush Doctrine would remain operative…start allowing terrorists sanctuary again, and you will get punished.

Anyway, it appears as if we are going to spend more blood and treasure in this quest and there is going to be little debate about it.  The Democrats want to prove that Bush was wrong to divert the War on Terror into Iraq, and McCain just seems to always be itching for a fight.  By defining the mission up, we are decreasing the odds of success while diverting spare resources from potentially more important uses. 

Like positioning to prevent Russia from retaking Georgia and the Ukraine, for example.  Or a tax cut.

Two good recent essays on the subject:

Bartle Breese Bull writing an opinion piece in the New York Times; and

Leon Hadar in The American Conservative.

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