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
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
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
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
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
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
"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