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On the shores of the Big Muddy

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
September 22, 2009

There are two things that can lead Obama to destroy his own presidency. The first, of course, would be if he capitulates to the insurance industry and health care reform either dies, or he signs a bill that maintains the status quo or makes it even worse.

The second thing is Afghanistan.

For centuries, Afghanistan has been known as “the graveyard of empires,” and in a land where everything changes politically every few years and nothing ever changes politically, that, above all, has not changed. Only the names of the empires change.

Obama inherited two land wars in Asia from the feckless Bush regime, and promised to have the combat troops out of Iraq by mid 2010, a promise he appears on track to be keeping.

General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, warned that it would soon be impossible to defeat the resistance unless another 30-40 thousand American troops were sent to Afghanistan immediately.

Obama, who had seen his “bold new strategy” that he announced last spring disintegrate in the face of a stronger-than-expected resistance and the complete corruption of the Karzai regime, vacillated, saying he wanted to decide what the mission for Afghanistan was before committing any more troops.

What, you mean he didn't know what the mission was when he announced his “bold new strategy” last spring? Doesn't strategy sort of imply a goal-oriented operation?

At least he's stopping to consider the implications of rushing in where angels fear to tread. That's better than pulling a Lyndon, and just blindly escalating because anything else would look politically weak.

At home, support for the war is strongest among the people who most want to see him fail. A large majority of Democrats oppose continuing, let alone expanding the occupation of Afghanistan, but most Republicans “support the war”. The only trouble is they don't support the president, so from a political perspective, Obama has no support of any value for expanding or even continuing in Afghanistan.

Nor is there a great deal of support among his allies. In the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown and the Labour party are looking to get spanked in the next general election, due to be held sometime before July of next year. Dissatisfaction with the occupation of Afghanistan is the primary factor – Labour have promised to get the British troops out by summer of 2010 – but with public support eroding rapidly there, it's one more nail in Brown's coffin. Polls generally agree that Labour faces an electoral debacle next spring, losing up to 100 seats in Parliament. It's even possible that the Loyal Opposition – the second biggest party in Parliament – next year might be the Liberal Democrats.

Britain has also tangled with Afghanistan in the past, immortalized by Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din. They got their asses handed to them. Right up the old Khyber, as they say in London.

In Germany, the issue of Afghanistan had been simmering on the back burner. Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, heads of the two biggest parties in the Bundestag, and 90% of the membership, support the German presence in Afghanistan (by law they cannot refer to it as a “war” because the German constitution forbids it, and calling it what it is, an occupation, is too unpalatable to Germans. Thus it is a presence.). This had negated it as a political issue, since only the splinter parties of the far left were willing to talk about it. The result was that in a recent poll, only 3% of German voters said Afghanistan would have a significant impact on their vote.

But then German spotters called in an American air strike, with the result that dozens and perhaps hundreds of Afghanistanis were killed, and the German public, horrified, recoiled. German opposition to the occupation, while prevalent (55% want the troops brought home), hadn't been particularly strong, but now the stance has toughened. A complicating factor, days before their general election, is a threat from al Qaida to stage a series of terrorist attacks across Germany in an effort to sway their vote, as they did in Spain. Even if they succeeded, al Qaida wouldn't change German policy much, because they would simply be swapping Merkel's center-right government with Steinmeir's center-left one, and about the only significant change would be that a Steinmeir government might be more willing to overhaul the financial sector system. With the 20th century to guide them, German voters are not anxious to embrace extremists on either the left or the right.

But the airstrike, coupled with the al Qaida threat, will strengthen resistance to the “presence”, and I won't be surprised if, by next summer, Germany has announced a plan to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan.

In France, opposition to the occupation is widespread, and growing. French opposition is fueled mostly by concerns over the economy, and the sometimes restive Moslem minority in France. The operations of Afghanistan haven't been brought front and center as they have for other countries. French casualties have been relatively light, with 30 French soldiers killed since 2001. In in a recent incident just a fortnight ago, one French soldier was killed and nine more injured by an IED.

In Canada, support for the occupation, never high, is eroding. Fifty seven percent of Canadians disapprove of the actions in Afghanistan, 34% strongly disapprove. Nor are Canadians optimistic about how things will go in Afghanistan; 65% think it will end in failure, and 28% believe it will succeed.

This leads to one of those polling quandaries. 41% of Canadians approve of being in Afghanistan, but only 28% expect it to succeed. That means that at least 13% of Canadians expect it to be a failure, but approve of having our young people over there to get shot at anyway. I won't pretend I understand that. Canada has the highest per capita rate of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Even though Steven Harper and the Conservatives favor the occupation, they are likely to pay a low political price. The Liberals blundered, signing off on an agreement to keep the troops in Afghanistan until 2011, and then evaluating the situation. The agreement is widely unpopular with Canadians, and effectively negates Afghanistan as a political issue. As in the UK, Canada must have a general election, in their case by next summer, and without Afghanistan as a viable issue, the Conservatives look to maintain and even increase their lead in Parliament. The economic factors that so damaged the Republicans in America don't obtain; Canada didn't make the same financial blunders that the cowboys of Wall Street did, with the result that the banks are solid, the recession isn't severe, and Canadians aren't starving or losing their homes. In Canada, even the bad guys are decent.

The last major ally is Italy. Like Germany, support for the occupation is pretty much limited to the government, with widespread opposition among the Italian people. Six Italian soldiers were killed about a week ago, and as a result Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters "We must bring our boys home [from Afghanistan] as soon as possible." While it's impossible to guess what Belusconi will actually do, it does indicate that, like with the general population, resolve against continuing the occupation is building.

Finally, there's the Afghani people themselves. As much as most of them hate the Taliban, they hate the corrupt and ineffectual Karzai regime even more, and foreign invaders even more than that. The longer the allies stay in Afghanistan, the more the general population there will resist them, and the stronger the insurgency will become.

So that's it for America's biggest allies in Afghanistan. Three of the five have plans to pull out, and the other two are considering it.

Domestically, the only people who support American involvement in Afghanistan also happen to be the President's worst political enemies. And in Afghanistan itself, America has few, if any real friends, and lots of enemies. This does not portend great military and political accomplishments for Obama.

And of course, Americans are distracted by the health care debate, and the economy, which for 99% of Americans, most certainly is not in recovery. Eventually it will seep into the public consciousness that Afghanistan is a growing mess for America (already 4 out of 5 US troops killed in combat are killed in Afghanistan, the opposite of just a year earlier), and that it threatens to develop into another Vietnam. Things have a way of quieting down for the winter in Afghanistan, due to the fierce winter weather, but come spring, the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan will resume fighting, fiercer and harder than ever.

General McChrystal is wrong. Forty thousand more troops won't solve the problem. Four hundred thousand probably wouldn't. America is in the position, along with her allies, of trying to occupy a country that cannot be occupied, and it will, once again, be a graveyard for empires—this time, American.

Obama needs to stop thinking about containment or Afghanization or whatever the hell he's using to justify escalation, and start looking to get the hell out before the place blows up in his face.

Because there's a good chance that by this time next year, it could be the biggest issue in American politics.

If LBJ were alive, he could tell Obama how well that works out for a sitting president.

"Tho' I've belted you and flayed you, By the livin' Gawd that made you, You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" -- Rudyard Kipling

Posted: September 25, 2009

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