Saturday, October 31, 2009
Taliban Dreams (2): Unfathomable Choices
I've watched Barack Obama edge and angle himself out of many tight corners with canny moves, but when it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are no canny moves. It's the equivalent of playing chess on a board that has already been checkmated, even before you start. Plus, in this case, the board sits on top of an intricate cat's cradle of crossbones and chicken wire--which is to say, a convolution of ideas so self-contradictory and incompatible--where, like tea going into a cup, escape is impossible. Let me try to explain.
By checkmating, I mean: whether we stay in Afghanistan or leave, either way we will end up destablizing the Middle East. All our presence there has really produced so far is a growing, seemingly unstoppable, insurgency; Osama bin Laden has used our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to convince potential jihadists that Islam is under attack by the West. On the other hand, even if we now draw down our troops, we also stand to grow the insurgency, as they will quickly close in to fill the gap and declare victory. So we are on a Saint Catherine's wheel, struggling to prevent what our presence there has already made inevitable--and landing, with froglike accuracy, on the same, unrelenting conundrum over and over again. It seems there is simply no right way to invade and transform a Muslim country without becoming a magnet for jihadists and furthering the cause of Islamist extremism.
I was struck by Tom Friedman's conclusions this week in his column in the New York Times. He casts a no-nonsense vote on the question of ramping up or drawing down in Afghanistan, as follows: "We need to be thinking about how to reduce our footprint and our goals there in a responsible way, not dig in deeper."
Friedman then argues that we simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan. And he does not see any sign of a moderate Muslim majority ready to take ownership of its own future. So he bemoans having to watch our secretary of state plead with President Karzai to re-do an election that he blatantly stole, or beg intractable Israelis to stop building settlements in Gaza. "It is time to stop subsidizing their nonsense," he writes, like someone who has finally arrived at enlightenment. "Let them all start paying retail for their extremism, not wholesale. Then you'll see involvement...." Friedman claims we no longer have the resources we had when we started the war on terrorism after 9/11 and, even more to the point, we desperately need nation-building at home. "Yes, shrinking down in Afghanistan will create new threats," he says, "but expanding there will, too. I'd rather deal with the new threats with a stronger America." I felt substantially invigorated after reading his piece.
The next day, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof took a similar tack, stating that we have already increased our troop presence in Afghanistan, and the result has not been more stability but more casualties and a stronger insurgency. If the last surge of troops hasn't helped, why will the next one be any diffierent? In Kristof's opinion, building schools would be a better investment, and serve as a counter-force to the influence of all those Islamist madrassas.
Even while many are proposing it is finally time to reduce our footprint in the Middle East, others are arguing the precise opposite, with equal cogency and fervor. Christiane Amanpour, for instance, a highly respected and experienced international CNN correspondent who has been reporting from Afghanistan since 1996, deduces from her many conversations with Afghans on the ground that what they most want, after 30 years of war, is security and the chance to earn a decent living. They also crave release from the threat of more terrorist attacks. The majority want nothing to do with the Taliban, but they fear America will not have the will to stay around long enough to finish the job. Our history in the region has so far not been one of promises kept.
David Brooks also speaks to that same issue in his column this week, "The Tenacity Question." Brooks claims to have called around to a number of smart military experts he knows personally, to get their views on the choices facing the president. What concerns them most of all, it seems, is Obama's level of determination. They are unable to scope out his commitment to this effort, his willingness to persevere through good times and bad. "They do not know," Brooks writes, "if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion." Obama, they worry, might just prefer addressing the many pressing issues on the home front. Mostly their complaint centers on not being able to get a fundamental read on where the president really stands. (It's the same criticism that has been leveled at Obama's approach to health care reform.) In the matter of Afghanistan, Dick Cheney calls it "dithering"--and a threat to our national security. Brooks and Cheney both consider that Obama may just be deficient when it comes to having core convictions and raw determination.
I think about this a lot, myself. And I am reminded of those Cheyenne warriors I once read about, whose tracks were just so hard to read. They pointed in all directions so you were never quite sure which way to proceed. They preferred to create bafflement in their doings, so they could stay clear of any demands others might make of them. Obama, with his highly strategic basketball skills, is like a twenty-first-century version of that, keeping his intentions partly hidden while he prepares for an action, and keeping opponents at bay, so they can never be quite sure of his next move. It's the basic skill of the martial artist.
"The president is not a strong man." a blogger commented in the Times, responding to David Brooks' article, "I have determined, after supporting the President, that he doesn't really know what he thinks, or what he believes. He is just here, blowing in the wind, this way or that way, whatever happens to be the popular breeze. We can't know where he stands, if he doesn't know, himself." In this view, Obama is quintessentially faint-hearted, unwilling to really stick his neck out.
It's all in the eye of the beholder, as they say, isn't it?
And then there was Sting, wildly singing the president's praises this week, going so far as to claim that he might just be a divine answer to the world's problems. "In many ways, he's sent from God," he joked, "because the world's a mess." But Sting is altogether serious in his belief that Obama is the best leader to navigate the world's problems. "I found him to be genuine, very present, clearly super-smart, and exactly what we need in the world," he was quoted as saying in my local paper this week.
So where, exactly, am I in all of this? Still haunted by the memory of what Osama bin Laden's deputy. Ayman al-Zawahiri, said way back in 2003, about us being in Iraq: "If they withdraw, they will lose everything, and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death." Given the two choices, which I believe are the ones actually at stake here, I am quite happy not being the person who is charged with making the deadly choice.