What in God's Name Do the Obama People Think They're Doing in Afghanistan?

Aug 24, 09 | 12:03 PM   byStephen Spain
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There’s an Alice in Wonderland quality to our involvement in Afghanistan. We followed Osama bin Laden down his rabbit hole and now we’re caught up in a nonsensical world. Hookah-smoking drug lords blow smoke rings in our eyes and hand their cash off to the Taliban, who appear and disappear like turbaned Cheshire cats. Karzai, the Mad Hatter who favors fetal lambskin headwear, presides over an electoral tea party where the ballot boxes are empty and all 41 presidential candidates declare victory. In rural villages, mullahs play the Red Qur’an, shouting “Off with their hands!”

Unfortunately, we’re not going to wake up and discover it was all a dream. Every day, very real people are dying as we stagger cluelessly through Blunderland. We send more armed men to a country where the main problem is too many armed men. We declare our commitment to protecting civilians while continuing poorly-intelligenced air strikes that turn the population against us. We “liberate” districts from the Taliban knowing that neither our forces nor the Afghan National Army will be able to hold them. We alternate between tolerating the drug trade and selective crack-downs (but never on the president’s brother). We shake our heads sadly about rampant corruption, but keep supplying the money that feeds it. It’s almost like we want to lose. Almost. Actually, our goal is simply not to win anytime soon, while appearing to make enough progress to keep our continued presence politically viable at home.

No one in the Obama administration actually thinks that sending more troops will bring peace to Afghanistan, but it stopped being about Afghanistan quite a while ago. It’s all about Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan is a country with nuclear weapons that is in danger of being taken over by radical Islamists. Iran is a country run by radical Islamists that is in danger of getting its hands on nuclear weapons. The US military and national security establishment want as many troops as possible in Afghanistan for as long as necessary to address these threats. Without them, our ability to intervene militarily is extremely limited. Sitting in Washington looking at a map, the need for a bunch of pins in Afghanistan is obvious.

The problem with this thinking is that it actually helps to bring about the result that we so desperately seek to avoid. Our continued and growing presence in Afghanistan is destabilizing Pakistan and stoking Iran’s paranoia and perceived need for nuclear weapons. It is possible to bring peace and stability to the region, and it doesn’t require more troops. Some of the creative foreign policy and national security voices that we heard from during Obama’s campaign know this. But they didn’t make it into his administration. Instead, he is slogging through the sand, hand in hand with Cold War era diplomatic walruses and military carpenters. Oysters, anyone?

Stephen Spain spent five years in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s, working for the United Nations and Save the Children in Herat, Islamabad, Jalabad, Kandahar and Quetta.

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