An American Decision

Multilateral, shmultilateral. Here we are, in Afghanistan, and it’s an American decision that will make all the difference.

The Obama administration came into office promising to use “all the elements of national power” (or, in the bumper-sticker version, “smart power”). Why use military force—unilaterally—if diplomacy and economic power and multilateral action can do the trick?

The campaign in Afghanistan, already a multilateral action for the record books, is now framing that question in stark and concrete terms. One reason the Obama administration may have been caught so flat-footed by the troop request from General McChrystal is that the multilateralism of our approach to the Afghan problem has rarely, if ever, been surpassed. Afghanistan has been both NATO-ized and Asianized: it is the major preoccupation of the NATO alliance today, representing the largest overseas deployment of almost every NATO contributor; but it is also the main overseas military commitment of Japan (now under reconsideration), as well as a regional issue with its own standing working group under the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO, in fact, held a summit conference devoted to Afghanistan in March, attended by U.S. and other NATO representatives, and has treated Afghanistan as one of its main issues at each conference in the last five years. (See a good summary of the SCO and Afghanistan here.)

For at least two of those years, as any online search will reveal, pundits and politicians have been making the case that more cooperation between NATO and Russia is the key in Afghanistan. Russia is now embedded in the humanitarian effort there, and has assumed a de facto patronage of Hamid Karzai’s government. India has become a major commercial investor in Afghanistan, although China is holding back because of the ongoing danger. Pakistan has roused itself to a significant effort against the Taliban in its northwest territories. Even Iran has been welcomed to the fold of multilateral diplomacy on Afghan issues.

America’s top officials in Afghanistan, fully aware of all these dynamics, assembled and forwarded a plan to implement President Obama’s new strategy—one that incorporates and relies on these multilateral, diplomatic, and economic factors. In the process they determined that if we are to “defeat, dismantle, and disrupt Al Qaeda,” it is essential to deny the Taliban territory by immunizing the population against the Taliban’s guerrilla tactics. But the means to do that cannot be found in cooperation with Russia, commercial investment by India, or the discussion points of SCO working groups. The means for immunizing the Afghan population against the Taliban is boots on the ground.

If Albert Brooks scripted a send-up of self-important “smart power” multilateralism, it would look like the effort in Afghanistan. And in Brooks’s hands, of course, the inevitable comeuppance would be handled with painful honesty. All the multilateralism in Afghanistan—a pragmatic holding strategy for Bush, an ideological sine qua non for Obama—cannot achieve what a unified, military-centered offensive can. If Obama’s objective remains defeating, dismantling, and disrupting Al Qaeda, he will choose the military-centered option or he will not achieve it.

Our European NATO allies remain unwilling to make more than token additions to their troop strength in Afghanistan. The SCO nations have consistently declined to make military contributions in Afghanistan. If there is to be a military-centered initiative to drive back the Taliban, it will have to undertaken by the U.S. In this most multilateral of operations, the way ahead comes down, as it has since 1945, to an American decision.

2 thoughts on “An American Decision”

  1. “The means for immunizing the Afghan population against the Taliban is boots on the ground.”

    Yes, but it’s not going to happen. Obama needs all the far left support on health care he can get, he’s NOT going to antagonize that pacifistic base by increasing his commitment to a war when he really wants to get out.

    Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser has just resigned. Want to bet that it’s about Afghanistan? No way to prove it one way or the other but it’s the most plausible reason. See:

    Obama’s Advisers Split on Afghanistan, Complicating President’s Decision
    http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/54868

    Those supporting an increase, Clinton and Holbrooke don’t have as much ‘pull’ as Chief of Staff Emanuel, Nat. Sec. Advisor Jones and VP Biden. Obama’s decision is a foregone conclusion.

  2. No, GB, you’re quite right. Obama’s decision isn’t a foregone conclusion at all.

    My supposition is that they are scrambling right now to come up with a compromise, one that keeps us there but with far fewer additional troops (if any), and a narrowly-conceived mission.

    My concern, of course, is with the prospect of having American troops stuck in Afghanistan without a real strategy or momentum.

    Merely headhunting AQ and the Taliban is police work. There is nothing inherent in this task that would change the strategic environment, protect the Afghans better, engage them with civil authorities and the central government, and enable us to LEAVE.

    But Obama has consistently refused to acknowledge that it’s the latter measures we have to take, if we’re to defeat, disrupt, and dismantle Al Qaeda.

    There are at least two dozen ways, and that many separate political predators, to imperil American troops and the US strategic position, with the situation we are sliding into in Afghanistan. France isn’t going to save our bacon here. This is our problem. Unfortunately, Obama is the one making the decisions.

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