"They're a mixed lot, and it won't help us to know the names of their tribes. The more tribes, the more they fight, and the better for us." Rudyard Kipling, about the Afghans in "The Man Who Would Be King"
A brief history: The Persians couldn't conquer them. The Hindus couldn't conquer them. Alexander the Great couldn't conquer them. The British couldn't conquer them. The Russians couldn't conquer them. Afghanistan has particularly difficult terrain, fierce tribal loyalties, and no strategic significance other than opium, and possibly a hiding place for outlaws. Yet, Obama wants "in".
The comparison to Iraq is stark. Easy terrain; oil; under Hussein, a threat to its neighbors, and to our Kurdish friends - with demonstrated chemical weapons with a goal of nuclear; now, an emerging Arab democracy which can serve as a barrier for Iran. Yet, Obama wants "out".
So, why does the guy who made his leap into national prominence by early opposition to the Iraq War want to go "all in" in Afghanistan? My premise - he got there in two stages:
- Early in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton he was primarily attacking her vote for the Iraq War, and grabbed onto the failure to find bin Laden as resulting from a wrong focus. This despite not visiting Afghanistan when he had a chance, and ignoring it in his role as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs, which had oversight responsibilities. During the campaign against John McCain this posture morphed into a need to demonstrate that he was not a naive peacenik as his connections with various leftists became known.
- Once the election was over, he decided to concentrate his political might on domestic (and economic) issues, choosing not to open a second front by taking on the national security establishment yet. The commitment to close Guantanamo was politically necessary, but even that has been announced in a way that is unsatisfactory to his liberal base. For now, he will concentrate on his domestic agenda - healthcare; income redistribution; and climate change. If that means a commitment of another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan with no exit strategy, so be it.
There are several other indicators of this domestic concentration:
- A perceived snub of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a February visit;
- Silence in the face of Russian plans to operate bombers from Cuba and Venezuela, North Korean missile plans, and Iran's advance toward nuclear status;
- Allowing Teamster-supported abrogation of NAFTA agreements with Mexico.
Hopefully, General Petreus will be able to figure out a way to prevent Obama's Afghan adventure from ending like Kipling's verse:
"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, jest roll on your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your Gawd like a soldier." The Young British Soldier
This Glenn Beck video provides a bit of perspective for the non-economists among us. (Thanks to Jerry Roth - a long time friend in Wisconsin.)
Bill Bowen - 3/20/09