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Obama Knows Better on Afghan War

By Ivan Eland
January 19, 2010

Editor’s Note: Democrats continue to think they can counter Republican accusations that they are weak on national security by adopting GOP-like policies on terrorism and other geopolitical challenges around the world, such as President Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland suggests that Obama should follow in Afghanistan the logic he has applied to other conflict zones:

President Barack Obama recently expressed a reluctance to send U.S. forces to Yemen and Somalia, two “failed states” where al-Qaeda is active. Obama seemed to realize that such a U.S. military presence might make the terrorism problem worse. 

If he understands this effect in these two nations, why doesn’t the same principle apply to the war in Afghanistan?

In resisting pressure to send U.S. troops to Yemen in the wake of the underwear bomber’s connections there, Obama commented on sending American forces to places such as Yemen and Somalia. He said that he had “no intention of sending U.S. boots on the ground in those regions” while the local governments remain effective partners.

Obama also concluded that Washington must ponder “how we project ourselves to the world, the message we send to Muslim communities . . . the overwhelming majority of which reject al-Qaeda but where a handful of individuals may be moved by a jihadist ideology.”

Obama advocates “a larger process of winning over the hearts and minds of ordinary people and isolating these violent extremists.” He had expressed similar sentiments during his famous speech in Cairo.

These are mostly valid sentiments but contrast sharply with his acceleration of the war in Afghanistan. The governments of Yemen and Somalia are no stronger, less corrupt, more competent, or in control of more of their own territory than the Afghan government.

Yet more U.S. troops are seen as beneficial in Afghanistan but as counterproductive in Yemen and Somalia. Obama would likely say that added American forces are needed in Afghanistan because the central leadership of al-Qaeda operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

Yet if Obama realizes that more U.S. troops in Yemen or Somalia would counterproductively create more jihadists ready to throw out the “infidels,” then the same effect should be and is occurring in Afghanistan — regardless of whether or not the al-Qaeda leadership is nearby.

Therefore, applying his logic for Yemen and Somalia to Afghanistan, Obama has inadvertently admitted that his troop surge to that country will merely fuel the Taliban insurgency there and a rising Islamic militancy in Pakistan — the country where Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of al-Qaeda may be hiding.

Instead of making these problems worse, the U.S. should be trying to co-opt or buy off the Taliban instead of driving it closer to al-Qaeda. Studying the few successful counterinsurgency campaigns in history indicates that the most likely way to win is to split the opposition.

In the short-term, this is what Gen. David Petraeus did in Iraq, turning the Sunni Awakening against al-Qaeda (but which will likely fail in the long-term because Iraq is so fractured among Kurds and Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs).

Yet Obama does the opposite in Afghanistan. Why?

Because he has fallen victim to the perpetual worry among Democrats that they will be labeled as weaklings on national security, especially at a time when he has pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from the quagmire in Iraq.

To appear strong and show that he is doing something about terrorism, he has halfheartedly escalated the unpopular war in Afghanistan, while at the same time making noises about eventual withdrawal, and has taken former Vice President Dick Cheney’s bait by reiterating that the U.S. is in a “war on terror.”

Instead, Obama should simply have announced that the Bush administration-initiated “war on terror” had failed and cited the statistics to back it up. Compared to Sept. 11, 2001, and before, worldwide monthly fatalities from terrorism have jumped more than 150 percent.

Much of the failure of the “war on terror” can be attributed to post-9/11 non-Muslim occupation of and interference in Muslim lands — the very reason that Osama bin Laden has said he attacks the United States.

Thus, Obama should follow the physician’s motto — do no harm — and reconsider his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which increases the ranks of Islamist militants and terrorists worldwide and which even he has admitted cannot eradicate the Taliban.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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