Posted by: Taylor Hoff | June 30, 2010

Thomas Friedman – What’s Second Prize?

What’s Second Prize?

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s trashing of his civilian colleagues was unprofessional and may cost him his job. If so, it will be a sad end to a fine career. But no general is indispensable. What is indispensable is that when taking America surging deeper into war in Afghanistan, President Obama has to be able to answer the most simple questions at a gut level: Do our interests merit such an escalation and do I have the allies to achieve victory? President Obama never had good answers for these questions, but he went ahead anyway. The ugly truth is that no one in the Obama White House wanted this Afghan surge. The only reason they proceeded was because no one knew how to get out of it — or had the courage to pull the plug. That is not a sufficient reason to take the country deeper into war in the most inhospitable terrain in the world. You know you’re in trouble when you’re in a war in which the only party whose objectives are clear, whose rhetoric is consistent and whose will to fight never seems to diminish is your enemy: the Taliban.

President Obama is not an Afghan expert. Few people are. But that could have been his strength. The three questions he needed to ask about Afghanistan were almost childlike in their simplicity. Yet Obama either failed to ask them or went ahead, nevertheless, because he was afraid he would have been called a wimp by Republicans if he hadn’t.

The first question was hiding in plain sight: Why do we have to recruit and train our allies, the Afghan Army, to fight? That is like someone coming to you with a plan to recruit and train Brazilian boys to play soccer.

If there is one thing Afghan males should not need to be trained to do, it’s to engage in warfare. That may be the only thing they all know how to do after 30 years of civil war and centuries of resisting foreign powers. After all, who is training the Taliban? They’ve been fighting the U.S. Army to a draw — and many of their commanders can’t even read.

It is not about the way. It is about the will. I have said this before, and I will say it again: The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them. The Camp David peace treaty started with Israelis and Egyptians meeting in secret — without us. The Oslo peace process started with Israelis and Palestinians meeting in secret — without us. The Sunni tribal awakening in Iraq against pro-Al Qaeda forces started with them — without us. When it starts with them, when they assume ownership, our military and diplomatic support can be a huge multiplier, as we’ve seen in Iraq and at Camp David.

Ownership is everything in business, war and diplomacy. People will fight with sticks and stones and no training at all for a government they feel ownership of. When they — Israelis, Palestinians, Afghans, Iraqis — assume ownership over a policy choice, everything is possible, particularly the most important thing of all: that what gets built becomes self-sustaining without us. But when we want it more than they do, nothing is self-sustaining, and they milk us for all we’re worth. I simply don’t see an Afghan “awakening” in areas under Taliban control. And without that, at scale, nothing we build will be self-sustaining.

That leads to the second question: If our strategy is to use U.S. forces to clear the Taliban and help the Afghans put in place a decent government so they can hold what is cleared, how can that be done when President Hamid Karzai, our principal ally, openly stole the election and we looked the other way? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the administration told us not to worry: Karzai would have won anyway; he’s the best we’ve got; she knew how to deal with him and he would come around. Well, I hope that happens. But my gut tells me that when you don’t call things by their real name, you get in trouble. Karzai stole the election, and we said: No problem, we’re going to build good governance on the back of the Kabul mafia.

Which brings up the third simple question, the one that made me most opposed to this surge: What do we win if we win? At least in Iraq, if we eventually produce a decent democratizing government, we will, at enormous cost, have changed the politics in a great Arab capital in the heart of the Arab Muslim world. That can have wide resonance. Change Afghanistan at enormous cost and you’ve changed Afghanistan — period. Afghanistan does not resonate.

Moreover, Al Qaeda is in Pakistan today — or, worse, in the soul of thousands of Muslim youth from Bridgeport, Conn., to London, connected by “The Virtual Afghanistan”: the Internet. If Al Qaeda cells returned to Afghanistan, they could be dealt with by drones, or special forces aligned with local tribes. It would not be perfect, but perfect is not on the menu in Afghanistan.

My bottom line: The president can bring Ulysses S. Grant back from the dead to run the Afghan war. But when you can’t answer the simplest questions, it is a sign that you’re somewhere you don’t want to be and your only real choices are lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small.

Owning your achievements is a sure-fire way to succeed, and to be honest, these governments we install seem to act more like spoiled children than real governments. Focus on Iraq, resurrect whatever democracy looks like over there, and get out. Otherwise, drop the pretense and inflict total war, take the $1 Trillion in minerals, and only secure the supply lines. Iraq is where the oil is, and unless we are taking Afghanistan’s minerals and bailing, then we have no business being there. I do not want nor favor endless war, and I’m pretty sure nobody else but career military men do either. (And probably not even most of them…)

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