As he continues to stretch out the timetable on a decision about whether to escalate the U.S. commitment to the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has asked for a province-by-province assessment of the tribal and other local leaders in that mountainous country.
The ostensible reason is to try to figure out which local regions have leaders inclined to cooperate with the U.S. and able to provide a modicum of stability, meaning there would be little need for a lot of U.S. troops.
To many people, however, this looks like almost obsessive micromanagement from Washington of a country about which even most reputed experts in this country know little.
In some ways one can understand President Obama taking his time and immersing himself in detail. Recent polls show a plurality of Americans oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, and a growing number of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, don’t think the war is worth fighting at all. In addition, events of recent days hardly bode well for the war becoming more popular at home.
First came the resignation from the State Department of Matthew Hoh, a former Marine who saw combat in Iraq and had been put in charge of U.S. operations in rural Zabul province.
“The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept,” Hoh wrote in his letter. “I have lost confidence that such assurances can anymore be made.”
Then came the news that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of current Afghan president Hamid Karzai, the de facto leader of Afghanistan in much of the south around Kandahar, has likely been on the CIA payroll in various ways for the better part of eight years. Almost every knowledgeable observer believes Ahmed Karzai is deeply implicated in the opium trade and in the corruption that seems to flourish in the Afghan government.
A number of U.S. officials have openly urged President Hamid Karzai to give his brother the boot to help restore at least an appearance of a semblance of integrity. Yet meanwhile the CIA has been funding him for years? Does the right hand of the government know what the left hand is doing? Are different agencies of the government working at cross-purposes? Or is the U.S. government simply stumbling along, making more enemies and increasingly being seen as foreign occupiers in a country it ill understands?
The emerging complexities reinforce what we have recommended for months. If the U.S. has a legitimate interest in Afghanistan, it is to ensure that al-Qaida, which has international ambitions and capabilities, does not reestablish operational bases in Afghanistan. No credible authority believes it has them now.
So our best bet is to draw down U.S. military forces and inform whatever government emerges in Afghanistan that if al-Qaida does establish bases we will destroy them pronto. Then go after al-Qaida where it is, in Pakistan, with what has worked best so far: better intelligence and the occasional special forces operation or drone strike.
Is that so hard to decide?