I don’t think most Obama supporters realize that Obama is running on a platform promising unending war in the Middle East. I don’t mean Iraq; I think he’s still committed to leaving Iraq as soon as possible. He has, however, committed to winning Afghanistan, and I don’t think voters realize just how much of a challenge that would be. The U.S. currently has 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, with roughly 15,000 more foreign troops, in contrast to the 150,000 troops in Iraq. Afghanistan is actually more populous than Iraq. It is also one of the poorest nations in the world and lacks the physical or communications infrastructure that would ease the operation of an effective counterinsurgency campaign. And unlike the ethnic coalitions of Iraq, the ideological fundamentalist opposition of the Taliban means that insurgents cannot be co-opted in the way that Sunni militias have been in Iraq. Their interests are irreconcilable with ours.
That doesn’t even begin to approach the biggest problem with an effective counter-Taliban strategy in Afghanistan, which is the fact that the Taliban is based in Pakistan. This article from the September 5th New York Times Magazine is an absolute must-read. It details the way that elements of the Pakistani intelligence services are cooperating with the Taliban, even funneling them a portion of the American aid meant for the Pakistani government to fight the Taliban. Central authority in Pakistan is weak enough that even if the political will to wipe out the Taliban existed (and it doesn’t), the government would remain unable to effectively control its own forces.
The U.S. is already on the verge of a shooting war with Pakistan; American forces and Pakistani forces have been exchanging fire for the last two weeks. Just a few days ago, the U.S. military finally corroborated weeks of Pakistani reports of firefights on the border. The Pakistani government is not seriously moving to suppress the Taliban, and with good reason; it is hard to imagine that they relish the prospect of fighting a guerilla war against the de facto government in some of their tribal areas. The Pakistanis are, simply put, not on our side, and taking out the Taliban would require asserting American control over Pakistani tribal areas. That’s the potential for a war with Pakistan.
It doesn’t quite seem the case that winning the war in Afghanistan requires a war in Pakistan, but there’s no way to win without, at the very least, coming dangerously close. It’s just impossible to predict what might happen if incursions into Pakistan continue, but their internal debate over how to react could tear them apart. Or they could present a unified front in resisting America. We can’t afford to risk a war with a nuclear power, and the risk of internal instability is just as grave. Should there be any danger of destructive elements taking hold of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the U.S. would have zero choice about what to do: it would have to back a military coup. It’s impossible to stress this uncomfortable truth enough. For the sake of world peace, Pakistani reactionaries cannot be allowed anywhere near Pakistani nuclear weapons.
Obama has promised to take us into that danger zone. While it might work out, the potential risks are huge and, perhaps, unimaginable. Now, McCain is clearly the candidate of further war, and he is frantically backpedaling in his attempt to portray “Bomb, bomb, Iran” as not representative of his real desires. He appears to be promising offensive action against Iran if events continue on their current course, which might be worse than ratcheting up tensions with Pakistan. He also is clearly hankering for a move against North Korea, and that the problems with that approach definitely outweigh Pakistan.
In any case, it should be obvious that America just cannot handle any more war, and more war is what both the candidates offered at Friday’s debate. America doesn’t have the money, it doesn’t have the men, and it doesn’t have the freedom to alienate any more of the world. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Afghanistan is unwinnable with the level of commitment that we are willing to make. It was unwinnable for Great Britain, the greatest empire of the modern world, and it felled the Soviet Union. After we failed to catch bin Laden, it was pure delusion for us to think that we could remake Afghanistan in our own image. It’s time for us to declare defeat and come home.
-Alex Copulsky, Books & Arts Editor