Avoiding the ‘Graveyard of Empire’ Syndrome’

The administration of President Barack Obama is near fixated about not getting stuck in Afghanistan—the well-known “graveyard of empires.” That may be one reason why he is so persistent about not getting involved in the long-term process of nation-building, which is also full of too many hidden landmines. That is why he is so persistent about telling all his advisors, “I’m not ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan.” How else would he win in Afghanistan?

A cursory description of the Obama administration handling of the war in Afghanistan gives one a vivid description of how driven President Obama really is about getting out of Afghanistan. In a way that is refreshing when one recalls how obsessive George W. Bush was about invading—that is getting embroiled in—Iraq. But the stark contrast between the passions of these two presidents leads to the same outcome: America’s continued involvement in two very dangerous places, except prospects of winning in Afghanistan appear dim at best.

Regarding Iraq, we have no historical evidence of how bloody that involvement would have been before Bush invaded that country. In fact, all the so-called Iraqi experts were peppering Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives before the U.S. invasion of that country with such fictions that the Iraqi Army would walk away from the fight, that the Iraqis would be throwing rosewater and rice welcoming the invading American forces, and that they would offer them sweets. The American Army was welcomed by the Iraqis, but with bombs and IEDs and other means through which they vented their anger.

Afghanistan, on the contrary, is famously (or infamously) known as “the graveyard of empires.” Perhaps President Barack Obama clung on to that depiction. That is one reason why he wants to get out fast, before every Afghan becomes convinced that the lone superpower is only the latest of the many invaders of his homeland. But Obama had a choice of getting out of Afghanistan when he entered the White House, if not for the fact that he had already painted himself into a corner on that issue during his presidential campaign. He called Afghanistan the “right war.”

In order to “win” in Afghanistan, he has to make long-term commitments of staying there and building that country into a stable polity. He will have to think about institution-building and doing everything that would enable Afghanistan emerge as a modern nation-state. However, imagine the cost and, more to the point, the time required for doing that. At a time when the American economy is facing serious problems related to recession and high unemployment, there is no way President Obama can continue to spend big bucks as a price of staying and “winning” in Afghanistan. The American voters do not attach much value to winning there at a time when their own country faces an economic meltdown.

The left wing of the Democratic Party and the Independents, who bought Obama’s “Change” and “yes, we can” slogans of the 2008 presidential campaign, are steadily leaving his side. The Tea baggers inside the United States are screaming at the top of their lungs about Obama’s purported “socialist” policies. At a time when the American way of conducting civil debates has become a thing of the past, the lone superpower’s continued presence in Afghanistan may be acceptable for a short while, and only if it continues to win in that country.

But getting out of Afghanistan is no longer an option, even if it was one when Obama took the oath to his high office. The United States may have a slim chance of winning if it gets at least serious about implementing the counterinsurgency (CI) doctrine of General David Petraeus.

What that means is that the issue of nation-building has to be taken up by the U.S. military in a serious way. However, President Obama is on the record not only for his opposition for the nation-building option, but also about not staying there long. He has already told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, according to Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, “I’m not doing 10 years, I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”

Reading about the internal squabbling and name-calling from the very start of the Obama administration in Woodward’s book, I get the notion that America’s campaign in Afghanistan has been doomed from the very first day of the Obama watch. If, as Woodward claims, Obama doubted (if not truly opposed) the surge strategy for Afghanistan from the very beginning, how could he remain faithful to for a long duration? Indeed, the narrative makes obvious President’s deep skepticism of it.

As Woodward reports, President Obama privately encouraged Biden to ask hard questions in his opposition to the surge strategy so that he (Obama) did not lose the whole Democratic party. Come to think of it, that explanation also clarifies why Biden has been so forceful in promoting the counterterrorism (CT) strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and why he got into conflict with the former Commanding of the ISAF General McChrystal in such a major way. Even president’s aides doubt that Obama’s strategy would work, yet they are still in the White House pretending to implement it.

Biden’s contempt toward Obama’s Special Envoy to Pakistan-Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, was a surprising element. Holbrook was appointed for that job as a concession to Hillary Clinton. He was an original supporter of Hillary’s presidential campaign and would have been the Secretary of State, if she were to win the election. But leaving Holbrooke in his current job is also a grave error. He does not get along with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is described as “manic depressive” in Woodward’s book. He was despised by McChrystal and his top aides. Petraeus does not seem to care much for him, but is too polished to show his contempt as McChrystal did.

The civil-military tensions during the Obama administration reminds one of the situation that prevailed during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Obama, like Clinton, has no military experience. However, that lack of military experience is not a problem, Obama’s sustained skepticism of the earnestness of military advice is. George W. Bush did not have much military experience to speak of, but he paid inordinate attention to the “professional” aspects of the advice of the top military brass. Obama certainly does not share that trait with his predecessor.

The most surprising part of Woodward’s book is the discussion of tensions between Obama and General David Petraeus. The latter is implementing his own CI strategy, but at the same time he is also working on the time-related constraints imposed by the president. Petraeus is covering his back by stating that he is not promising victory in Afghanistan under those circumstances. He reportedly told Woodward, “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” However, President Obama and his White House advisors remain skeptical of it.

Every American president who was involved in a major foreign war or a crisis believed in a myth, which to his mind was the ultimate truth, and which was also driving his war. President Lyndon B. Johnson was driven by the myth of the “falling dominos”—whereby the fall of South Vietnam would have resulted in the fall to communism of neighboring states. President Richard M. Nixon’s first myth was “peace with honor,” whereby he was going to withdraw American troops from South Vietnam on his terms. Then he created another myth of “winning” over North Vietnam by implementing what he called “Vietnamization” of the Vietnam War. According to that myth, his administration was to rely on building the fighting capabilities of South Vietnamese forces. (I wonder how much that factoid reminds one of America’s current priorities of training the Afghan military.)

George W. Bush went beyond creating a myth to conjuring up a fairytale before invading Iraq. According to that legend Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons, which he was ready to lob on the United States and create mushroom clouds.

Barack Obama’s myth is the “term sheet” that, as Woodward tells us, he has created. It spells out the parameters of America’s involvement in Afghanistan. But his most dangerous myth is what he calls “The cancer is in Pakistan.” Consequently, he is determined to save Afghanistan from the spread of that cancer. It is a dangerous myth because Obama has been using that myth to implement Biden’s preference for counterterrorism approach toward Pakistan.

Pakistan has a problem with the Islamists. That problem has a solution. It should be tackled by implementing a multi-dimensional program of economic development, institutional building, reforming educational curricula, reestablishing effective and corruption-free police forces, and a number of other measures. Applying the hubristic title of “cancer” and then using drones to kill some extremists and a lot of innocent civilians is a borderline insane approach to resolving the extremism-related problems of Pakistan.

If CT were to have any credence as a warfighting strategy, then the United States would have long won in Iraq. As it turned out that even the semblance of “victory” in Iraq was created through Petraues’ counterinsurgency strategy, of which nation-building (albeit of a limited proportion) is a crucial part. But Obama has categorically ruled out nation-building in Afghanistan. Yet, as Woodward tells us, General Petraeus is still implementing his counterinsurgency strategy in that country, a strategy that has few, if any, supporters in Obama’s White House.

What emerges from the preceding analysis is that the United States is only pretending to win the war in Afghanistan by implementing a strategy which has few supporters, except for Petraeus. Even he knows how little support that strategy holds within the domestic political arena of the United States. So, Petraeus too is pretending to be presiding over a strategy that would make Afghanistan a safe enough place. He is no longer touting the message of victory, which he did in Iraq under Bush.

As major actors within the Obama administration continue to push their respective preferred agenda, the ultimate myth that is driving Obama’s War in Afghanistan is that the United States, somehow, would be victorious and would get out within a year or so. In the meantime, the Taliban are getting increasingly convinced that their victory is edging closer by the hour.

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