Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 13, 2009
WAR: The Taliban Deal-Breaker
The major decision the Obama Administration continues to procrastinate is whether to continue the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Victory in Afghanistan was, as you will recall, one of Obama's main campaign themes - one he used to convince people that he wasn't the dyed-in-the-tie-dyes peacenik his left-wing record, background and positions on other issues suggested. Under President Bush, America's war aims in Afghanistan were fairly straightforward:
1. Drive the Taliban from power.
2. Destroy Al Qaeda's training and operations bases in the country, while killing or capturing as many of their personnel as possible.
3. Replace the Taliban with a government that was less repressive, viewed as legitimate by the Afghan people, and would not cooperate with Al Qaeda - a step that inherently involved preventing the revival of the Taliban itself, given its Islamist ideology and thorough integration with Al Qaeda.
Step One was accomplished swiftly in the fall of 2001, and Step Two proceeded apace at the same time; Al Qaeda's leadership was never wholly destroyed (its very top men appear to have fled to the Waziristan region of Pakistan), nor completely routed from the country, but its bases were destroyed and its ability to project power from Afghanistan to outside countries was essentially crippled.
Step Three was always the diciest as a long-term proposition; as I wrote in early 2003:
Long-term, we would like to establish a secure government in Afghanistan that will consolidate the victory over theocracy and prevent re-establishment of havens for terror. But if we fail in that aim, as we still may, the war will no more be a failure than it is a failure to weed your garden in spring and, the following year, discover new weeds.
We were never going to create an ideal liberal democracy in Afghanistan, given its combination of (among other things) tribal warlord culture, illiteracy and poverty, but without going into the whole 8-year blow-by-blow, the Karzai government has by and large held together in one form or another for 8 years as a mostly-willing ally against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Recently, however, especially since Al Qaeda's activities in Iraq have been winding down, the Taliban has been gaining more of a foothold, requiring the U.S. to face a choice: step up its own presence, or stand down and allow the Taliban to take its best shot at regaining power.
Now, Obama is putting up trial balloons about giving up on the whole project and accepting the Taliban returning to power as a fait accompli before it has even become one (passively allowing conditions on the ground to worsen and then accept the results as inevitable is Obama's go-to foreign policy move). But Allahpundit asks one crucial question we need to put to the Taliban to test whether or not it's completely insane to do this:
Ask them to tell us where Osama, Zawahiri, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and the rest of the gang are hiding; if Omar and the Quetta Shura don't have that information instantly available, they should be able to get it pretty quickly. Then they pass it to the Pakistanis and the Pakistanis pass it to us and the rest is left to the generals and drone operators....And if the Taliban refuses his demand, whether for reasons of jihadist loyalty or Pashtun hospitality, then there's your proof that they can never, ever be trusted not to host AQ if we leave them alone in Afghanistan.
We know the answer to that, and presumably so does President Obama. Bill Roggio explains at length why this would never happen, detailing the loyalties and operational integration of Al Qaeda with the Taliban and noting the obvious fact that a U.S. bent on leaving Afghanistan has a lot less leverage than one bent on entering it:
Mullah Omar would not agree to turn over bin Laden [in September 2001] when he was faced with the prospect of imminent annihilation. Surely Omar will not part ways with the terror master now that his prospects for success are greater than they have been in years.
Now, I'm not 100% opposed in theory to allowing bad actors to become parts of the political process if necessary to end a civil war, for example. But this is not a civil war, as Roggio details (really, you need to read his whole strategic overview). It is - and here is the fundamental way in which Right and Left disagree on this - a zero-sum ideological battle in which a U.S. defeat at the hands of Islamist tyrants cannot possibly be viewed as anything but a catastrophic setback. And acceptance of a resurgent Taliban after 8 years of making war to prevent just that would be understood universally as a defeat. Roggio details how Al Qaeda, as it did in Iraq, plays the sort of role in the Afghan war that the Soviet Union did in Vietnam, treating the locals as its proxies in an effort to demonstrate the superiority of its ideological model over that of the U.S., while providing logistical and other support. Any political accomodation that gives state power to an ongoing Al Qaeda proxy and ideological soulmate is a direct threat to U.S. national security, and needs to be treated as such.
The Left, having largely abandoned its long-held pretense of supporting the war against the Taliban, is busy conjuring up excuses for why victory can't be an option. Some of these are longstanding (Afghanistan is poor and mountainous and disorganized), some more recently stressed (the Karzai government is corrupt, the recent election tainted by fraud - two interesting choices of criticism from supporters of a Chicago machine Democrat to run our own government), but if those weren't the excuses, there would be others. There are always others. The Left palpably ached for another Vietnam in Iraq, and despite a long, bloody and bitter war at great domestic political cost to the Right, in the end it didn't get one - instead of a repeat of the fall of Saigon at the hands of the jihad, an elected and relatively pro-American government still stands in Baghdad, and in one form or another looks likely to endure, even if its form and posture may change as the years go by. The same script is being rolled out in Afghanistan; it will be up to this White House to resist it even as it comes from Obama's own ideological soulmates.
Afghanistan is not Obama's war; it is America's, and those of us on the Right want it to succeed and will, by and large, support its aggressive prosecution under a Democratic president. But the corollary is that just as it's not his war alone to support, it's not his alone to abandon. Obama promised to see this fight through to the end. The Taliban won't do the things they'd need to do to switch sides; they remain committed to defeating us, and only America can stop them. Will Obama keep his promise? Or will he back down from Al Qaeda's unrepentant ally and protector, and treat them as just more guys from the neighborhood?