Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"New" Approach in Afghanistan

We're going to war and "getting tough" on the largely corrupt and ineffective government of Hamid Karzai:

President Obama intends to adopt a tougher line toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, as part of a new American approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

Mr. Karzai is now seen as a potential impediment to American goals in Afghanistan, the officials said, because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban.

Among those pressing for Mr. Karzai to do more, the officials said, are Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The officials portrayed the approach as a departure from that of President Bush, who held videoconferences with Mr. Karzai every two weeks and sought to emphasize the American role in rebuilding Afghanistan and its civil institutions.

They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.

That last part gives me significant pause. If the solution to the Taliban insurgency is a strong and effective central government, what exactly do we have to gain by working with "provincial leaders" (governors and warlords, I presume)? How does that not undermine the central government, and a centralized Afghanistan in general?

“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Mr. Bush and is staying on under Mr. Obama, told Congress on Tuesday. He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there “our greatest military challenge.”

I understand the need to game expectations in Afghanistan. We cannot expect that in a matter of a few years, having already let the Taliban regain substantial power in the Afghan countryside, we are suddenly going to craft a strong, well-developed Afghan government and society capable of resisting the Taliban. But it is impossible to defeat the Taliban without providing an alternative to their rule (a rule they have re-instituted in much of the country, in fact.) As to the matter of corruption, much of the central government's corruption is the result of a flourishing drug trade in Afghanistan. What does the Obama administration intend to do about that?

I understand that being "realistic" in Afghanistan means acknowledging the limited power we have to reshape Afghan society or eliminate the Taliban entirely, but the only alternative to a strong central government is power-sharing with the Taliban. Is that what the administration has in mind? We've seen shades of just such a development already; does the Obama administration plan to continue this approach?

One more interesting note from this article:

An election is scheduled to be held no later than the fall, under Afghanistan’s Constitution. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who is a former United States ambassador to the United Nations and is viewed as a possible challenger to Mr. Karzai, warned that the Obama administration must tread carefully as it recalibrated its Afghanistan policy.

Talk about having a man on the inside. When the hell did Khalilzad start campaigning for President of Afghanistan?

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