Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Great Game in the 21st Century

Comes now the intrepid New York Times to report that Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai is complaining about US motives and strategy. We are not doing well by Afghanistan, just trying to gain influence in the region, the unnamed US sources accuse him of complaining. He could do a deal now with the Taliban if the US weren't interfering, he is said to have said. The US, for its part, goes public with the news that Karzai's invitation to visit the White House (on a date not set, but soon) has been revoked--ostensibly because he made moves to force his control of a corruption commission.

Still no mention of the offer on the table and how it relates to the current complaints and counter-complaints. Now, Afghanistan is not one of those reputed great chess-playing nations (like the Iranians, Russians, or Armenians)--their national game is the one where the men mounted on horseback drag the dead goat back and forth. I see Karzai as choosing to be one of the mounted guys, rather than the goat.

First, it can only help his level of esteem among the average Pashtun to be standing up, even a little, to the US. Here he's taking a page from Iraqi P.M. Al-Maliki.

The tension I see (which has not been reported) is whether to engage in peace discussions now or in the not-so-distant future. The optimal strategy is to beat up the Taliban and other insurgents throughout the summer and work the negotiations with the bruised remaining forces next winter. Then, the pullouts could begin on President Obama's schedule, or even a bit ahead of schedule.

I see the US military as the ones who are opposed to Karzai's desire to move more swiftly than that. Let's say that the reasons for that are "good" ones: the buildup of US forces is just now kicking in, and there are many available Taliban butts to kick. There may be a chance to strike successfully, and they don't want it taken away by an early peace, which may not be sustainable without more military success.

The only problem will be if one or more of three things happen: 1) The Taliban don't get their butts kicked this year--the battle in Kandahar, Karzai's home area, is going to be extremely tough; 2) The offer to make peace is permanently withdrawn by all insurgent groups; or 3) The US military starts doing a Vietnam-like "just one more offensive, just six more months" kind of thing in 2011 (and thereafter). 1) and 2) are clearly linked, but could happen independently; 3) could happen as a result of 1), but also independently, as our success will inevitably be less than complete.

My strongest advice is for President Obama, and it is that he not become the goat both sides start tugging. The message which should have come out of his secret, but announced meeting with Karzai should be: 1) The offensive will continue in force throughout the summer; 2) Engage the enemy in peace talks aimed at completion around year's end; 3) There will be no extensions of time, and we plan to pull out ALL forces from Afghanistan. Neither Karzai, nor our US military commanders, have to like this, but they should have no choice.

No comments: