Like most Americans, I have extremely limited knowledge of what's really going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and about developments with the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the reactions of the people who live in those two countries. There is, obviously, an enormous amount of information that Obama's team of military and foreign policy decisionmakers reviewed that the rest of us never saw - so, I base my opinions on the limited coverage I've seen on television or read in newspapers. The media, I think, presents an incomplete, oversimplified, often-confusing picture of what's going on in these countries.
However, I find the new US policy in Afghanistan troubling not only because the Obama Administration failed to justify putting the lives of thousands of US men and women at risk, but, failed to provide adequate answers to so many substantive questions about its escalation of military involvement. In addition, there are factors about how the decision evolved that concern me.
Here are just a few examples of my questions or concerns about Obama's decision:
1) The Obama administration has not sufficiently explained why Al Qaeda's presence in Pakistan and other countries amounts to a threat to our national security warranting 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, where all acknowledge, there are very few Al Qaeda members still located.
It seems the crux of Obama's policy is that by adding US troops, we'll train the Afghan troops, who will then be better-equipped to help prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven to Al Qaeda. However, this is a "hypothetical deterrent" because, in fact, we don't know exactly what Al Qaeda will do if the Taliban presence in Afghanistan grows in power and influence. (We don't know exactly what the Taliban or Al Qaeda will do - period). Perhaps Al Qaeda will linger in Pakistan or go to other locations. So, Obama's policy is a hypothetical premise for war -- which is NOT enough.
Al Qaeda poses an ongoing threat to the US - as do other terrorist groups, but, if we do NOT send these 30,000 troops, does Al Qaeda pose a significantly greater threat? I guess the US generals, military advisors and Obama's team are arguing "they might pose a greater threat in the future," but, that argument is NOT a rationale for escalating a war.
2) Did the US exhaust attempts to use diplomacy and non-military action or moves to address the problems in Afgahnistan?
Tom Hayden, former Chicago 7 leader and former California state senator, wrote a Dec. 1st piece for Nation in which he reported that some elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan might be willing to negotiate a "peace settlement" in the country "without safe havens for Al Qaeda..."
Instead, Hayden concluded, the US chose to pursue military action. Were there signs of potential - as Hayden wrote? I don't know, but, I hope the US pursued any opportunities for negotiating settlements of any kind.
There has been little news about efforts to negotiate anything in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but, does that mean we must assume any resolution will come only through continuous war?
3) Did President Obama provide enough evidence that, in fact, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be better in July 2011 (or, later, when our troops will likely leave) as a result of the 30,000 troops going there?
No, he did not. Obama and his military advisors are banking on the Afghan troops being ready to take responsibility after receiving training and assistance from US troops. However, let's face it: we simply don't know how that "training" and "readiness" will work out. It certainly seems very possible that either: a) Events might not evolve as the US predicts in terms of Al Qaeda rushing into Afghanistan if and when an increased Taliban presence evolves and provides a "safe haven;" or, b) Developments in Pakistan might unravel in ways we cannot anticipate given the tremendous instability there now, making our "surge" in Afghanistan less relevant.
4) Does the Obama administration have good reason to believe the corrupt Karzai government will be a "reliable partner" in resisting the Taliban?
Clearly, this is a weak part of the Administration's plan. At the same time, President Obama is hoping for the best from Karzai, he's saying things like "the days of providing a blank check" are over. Repeated reports have document the corruption and ineffectivenss of Karzai's government. How will Obama & the US transform Karzai's approach overnight? How can the US rely on this government for much of anything? Within days of Obama's speech, Karzai was voicing concern about the US withdrawing too early. It seems the US runs a tremendous risk, now, of taking on a role way too invasive and large in trying to implement its "policy" and that US effort is more likely to lead to resentment, resistance, hostility and non-cooperation from Afghan security forces and civilians. People in other countries don't like the US coming in and dictating what they need to do - period.
5) Obama has repeatedly pointed to Pakistan as the real object of US concern; yet, in Pakistan as well, there is much uncertainty over how an increased US military role in Afghanistan will make a difference.
It seems the Administration is trying hard, through the troop increase, to send a loud, clear signal to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan that "You won't be able to come into Afghanistan because we're shoring things up there..." Yet, again, is there enough evidence that we know the impact of this troop increase? Al Qaeda has resided primarily in Pakistan in the past few years, including on the border regions, but can the US really know Al Qaeda's next moves and destinations? A war has been raging much more in Pakistan between the Pakistan Army and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.
6) Reports have documented that Pakistan has, until the recent past, been unwilling to take on Al Qaeda in its own country. There is much turmoil in Pakistan. The US needs to work very hard to help Pakistan maintain stability without doing so in the role of "aggressive intervenor."
In my limited attempts to follow this story, I've been intrigued and troubled by the fact that Pakistan has lent its support to the Taliban in the past and often done little to attempt to quell or defeat Al Qaeda forces in its own country. Now, recently, the US has supposedly pressured Pakistan's army to take far more decisive action against Al Qaeda.. Clearly, the US can quietly provide much assistance.
The point is that Pakistan is the place we need to focus more now - not Afghanistan.
7) Therefore, a related point: Why couldn't the US restrict its involvement to: a) A much more focused effort to support Pakistan's "containment" of Al Qaeda in Pakistan; b) Continuing to support Pakistan's targeting of Al Qaeda leaders and halting of any moves by Al Qaeda that pose any threats to the government of Pakistan?
8) In the end, President Obama's action pleased the military and his Defense Secretary, but, was the President perhaps too influenced by the powerful US military, who - let's face it - usually advocate for more troops and more military action rather than the alternatives?
I thought Obama should have publicly scolded General Stanley McCrystal, when McCrystal came out, months ago, and publicly called for a large increase in troops. (He did this by leaking a document to the Washington Post) McCrystal was out of line and deserved a reprimand. Instead, in the end, McCrystal got most of the troops he wanted. What happened to the "Biden plan" - for sending a much, much smaller number of troops and focusing our efforts more on containing Al Qaeda? What happened to Obama, the "peace candidate" in 2008, when he espoused more common sense in our policy toward Iraq? It seems Obama, through this decisionmaking process, has morphed into "another conventional US President," who, in his desire to avoid risks, ends up following the influence of the military - and, in doing so - abandons his principles and good instincts.
9) How - after months of a careful, deliberative "review" of matters relating to his decision - can President Obama be so vague about whether and when the US troops will begin to withdraw in July, 2011?
In the week since his speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been asserting, in remarks, that, in fact July, 2011 will just mark the "beginning" of a US assessment of how and when to initiate withdrawal of troops. In his speech, Obama said that the US training of Afghan forces would "allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011..." Yes, Obama said the US would consider "conditions on the ground" in executing the withdrawal, but, if he intended to identify the date, shouldn't he have stood by it? Instead, Gates has been attempting to re-define Obama's words and is, in essence, saying we'll stay longer, if necessary. Who's in charge here, President Obama? Don't you realize this backpedaling makes you look weak?
10) Doesn't it make sense to at least give at least a minute's thought to whether there are any OTHER steps the US might take to reduce the threat of terrorism by Al Qaeda?
Acting in the role of "occupier," in Afghanistan surely helps fan the flames of anger and resistance to United States. The Afghan people, understandably, do not want our troops there. The more the US lingers in other countries - flexing our military muscles - the more the US assumes an image that can stir hatred, resistance, anger and help make enemies out of individuals who might previously be neutral.
I think it'd help to talk to former Al Qaeda members, former Taliban members and people all over the world about what steps they believe would help reduce terrroism.
Why don't we hear more about how leaders of countries are meeting - frequently, for that matter - to discuss strategies, steps and actions - that they might take to address the underlying causes of terrorism? Should the world just give up on that - and go on assuming that a relatively small group of Islamic terrorists should hold the rest of us hostage?
I'm not suggesting we stop trying to identify, or, eliminate those leaders of Al Qaeda we know responsible for the killing of many people. Sometimes, clearly, counter-terrorism, and military action is justified and probably the only effective course. On the other hand, it's time leaders and citizens from across the world try talking about alternative ways to deal with terrorism.