Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Afghanistan May Become Obama's war

It seems as though every newspaper and magazine that comes out or is posted on the Internet features depressing news.

Grabbing most attention the last few days has been the plight of the economy, particularly the “big three” U.S.- based automobile manufacturers who asked the federal government for loans and loan guarantees of $36 billion – of which they probably will get $14 billion if they even get that.

Another very prominent news “thread” centers on the transition of political power in Washington as the Bush administration winds down and the Obama electoral machine morphs from running for office to running the country starting January 20, 2009. And this week saw an unanticipated tangential news “thread” concerning the governor of Illinois who is alleged to have put the appointment of a successor to Obama in the U.S. Senate up for auction to the highest bidder.

On the international front, U.S. publications have had “in depth” coverage of the deadly raid (nearly 175 killed) on India’s financial center of Mumbai by Kashmiri militants who used Pakistan as their base for the operation. The U.S. has leaned on the Pakistan government to cooperate fully in any investigation by outsiders and not use their own investigation to muddy the waters.

As important as these stories are (and I do believe the “tangential” corruption case is important because it involves the public’s trust in those chosen to govern), together they have pushed the seven-year-long war in Afghanistan off the front pages or into the second, third, or even fourth position on television news programs.

Only when a report or an analysis carries a title such as “Afghanistan violence up 40 percent” (June 2008) or “U.S. helicopter shot down as Afghan violence rises” (July 2008) or “Afghan violence seen to be worsening” (November 2008) does Afghanistan register on the public consciousness. Yet unless and until more attention is given to resolving Afghanistan’s geo-political divisions, which everyone agrees cannot be done by military action alone, the public in four years may find large numbers of U.S. troops still in that country.

Listening to the words of the incoming “national security team” leaves the impression that Obama is content to have George W. Bush take the rap for a disastrous war adventure in Iraq (or as Bush himself once characterized it, a “catastrophic success”). But Obama must know that Afghanistan, like it or not, is going to become his war. And he may find that resolving it – even if the U.S. economy he inherits had been A-1 when he took the oath as president – will require radical approaches to both the military struggle and for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

I am reminded, in the context of the estimate that the Afghan Taliban now have a permanent presence in two-thirds of the country, of Bernard Fall’s 1964 lecture at the U.S. Naval War College in which he described the signs of where the Viet Minh insurgency against the French in Vietnam’s Red River Valley was in control of the population. As I noted in a 2004 essay on Iraq that referred to Fall’s earlier findings:

"[R]evolutionary war differed from all other forms of guerrilla (or small) wars in that its goal was to advance “an ideology or a political system.” Fall’s research about conditions in Vietnam convinced him that the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese (NV) approached the war as a struggle for control of the local and regional administrative structures of governance whereas U.S. civilian and military leaders saw armed conflict as the primary challenge. This mismatch in perceptions – an example of conceptual asymmetry – was reflected in events on the ground. The VC-NV concentrated on securing political levers while the U.S. emphasized a military “solution.” The U.S. failure to apprehend fully and consistently the secondary purpose of armed engagements in the VC-NV agenda resulted in a practical asymmetry in which superior U.S. firepower could win every battle yet lose the war.

"Fall himself attests to the extent of this conceptual misjudgment of the depth and extent of political action and intimidation by the VC-NV. Based on some truly intuitive insights that guided his investigations before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, Fall developed three criteria of effective administrative control (as differentiated from what is often intermittent military control) which convinced him that the French position in the North’s populous Red River Valley was about to collapse. The criteria identified the loyalties of de facto village chiefs in a region (which could be gleaned from reviewing the many obituaries of incumbents who lacked protection and plotting locales to determine patterns); where the government says it has teachers (in Vietnam teachers were centrally appointed); and which communities were paying taxes into central coffers.

"New research in 1958 and 1959 convinced Fall that the VC-NV had effectively isolated Saigon from the rest of South Vietnam by a “wall of dead village chiefs” – as many as eleven each day by 1961. But as Fall relates, not until 1963 did the U.S. Agency for International development (USAID) realize that Fall’s focus on tax receipts would apply to South Vietnam. What USAID discovered was that only three of 45 areas were free of VC-NV tax collections."

So the question for today is: “Who is collecting taxes for Afghan President Hamid Karzil?”
Regardless of the answer given today, I suggest that should the same question have to be posed in 2012, Afghanistan will have become Obama's war.

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