It is definitely the economy, stupid! but let’s change the subject anyway.
While his economic wizards study the lessons of the stock market crash of 1929 so that the Great Depression will not be reprised, President-elect Obama ought to spend at least a little time pondering some tragic history that is more likely to repeat itself on his watch. That is cataclysm in Afghanistan.
By the time Obama takes office his administration already will be impelled toward a broader and more debilitating war in Afghanistan, to which he does not object because it was the second principle of his foreign-policy platform.
The mantra of Democrats, including Obama and his presumed secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has been that George W. Bush abandoned “the good war” in Afghanistan for a needless one in Iraq. Obama plans to send two or three combat brigades to Afghanistan to do what he says that Bush should have done but failed to do, cleanse the country of militant Islamists and stabilize the democratic government there. The buildup is underway and it will be easier as Americans are expelled from Iraq under the humiliating terms that the Bush administration negotiated.
Far from pacifying the country for democracy, the big U. S. buildup is apt to turn President Obama’s Afghanistan into George Bush’s Iraq. Unlike Bush, who is incapable, Obama will rue the day.
Writing in The New York Times the other day after a tour of the war zone, Gen. Barry McCaffrey said the two or three brigades that Obama (and later John McCain) called for would be “irrelevant” in a country half again larger than Iraq and with a military a fourth the size of Iraq’s and far less loyal. As for the war on terror, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, not Iraq and Afghanistan, are the battlegrounds. Even Donald Rumsfeld is dubious about the war expansion.
This is where some historical reflection would pay off. Afghanistan is a huge medley of largely self-governing tribes, mostly fundamentalist Islamic, that have never been hospitable to foreign occupiers or effective government by anybody. Ask the British, who fought three brutal wars there (no earthlings were ever more cruel than the colonial Brits —until the Russians came along), the third war ending with Afghanistan’s independence in 1919.
Obama might consult Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 facing almost exactly Obama’s circumstances, an economy in shambles and a war against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan that was supposed to have lasted a few weeks but was heading into its sixth year with mounting bloodshed, costs and worldwide censure. We are starting our eighth year. Gorbachev first tried raising the stakes, as Obama is doing, but after four years surrendered and withdrew every last Russian soldier.
Obama could ask one of his advisers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, for some candid reflection. It was Brzezinski’s miscalculations as Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser in 1978 that sucked the Russians into an invasion — it was to be Russia’s Vietnam, and it became exactly that — and started the terrible cycle that brought the United States to its current straits.
One violent overthrow after another in the 1970s had led to the formation of a socialist Afghan government that sought to install a secular state, squashing Islamic tradition and liberating women, the latter a cause that compels Hillary Clinton’s ardor for the Afghan war. Brzezinski considered Afghanistan a Soviet client and persuaded Carter to support and arm the Mujahedeen, the coalition of militant Islamists (we call them terrorists today) who were fighting the leftist government. Ronald Reagan would take support for the Mujahedeen to new levels.
The new president might look back at accounts of the internal Politburo debate over intervening in Afghanistan or, even better, the transcript of a telephone conversation between the apprehensive Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, and the Afghan leader who was pleading for not just military aid but Russian troops camouflaged as Afghans to help him beat back the Islamic rebels. It was all made public after the attempted coup against Gorbachev by communist hardliners in 1991. Kosygin, who thought the secular government had erred in overriding Islamic traditions, asked if the secular government had any support from workers or the general populace or could rely on the loyalty of any of the Afghan soldiers and it was clear that the real answer was no. The Russians invaded anyway.
Rather than the easy conquest of a few weeks that Leonid Brezhnev told the Politburo would be required, the Russians would eventually send 200,000 men to battle, slaughter up to 2 million Afghan civilians and drive another 5 million into Pakistan and Iran in one of the most merciless campaigns in history. They carpet bombed villages into oblivion on a hunch that terrorists might be hiding there. It never made the slightest difference. No realist thinks President Obama’s two or three brigades will either.
The government fell after the Russians left and a tribal mullah named Omar who followed a strict Islamic creed assembled parts of the Mujahedeen under the name Taliban and took power, providing the first effective governance in 40 years. Bush was so happy with the Taliban because it virtually eliminated heroin production that he sent the mullah $43 million four months before the 9/11 attacks along with a promise of more and a note of encouragement from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Bush and Mullah Omar both would make terrible mistakes then, Bush by demanding that the Taliban capture and hand over Osama bin Laden and his men who were hunkered in the mountains on the Pakistan border and Omar by not saying, “we have no way of doing that since we don’t control that region so be our guests and come nab them yourselves.”
Bush would waste time in overthrowing the Taliban before going after the real prey and then turning his fury on another nasty old ally, Saddam Hussein. Obama will make matters much worse if he wastes so much valuable history.