The Public Eye: Afghanistan May Prove to Be Obama’s Weakness

By Bob Burnett
Wednesday March 11, 2009 - 07:22:00 PM

So far, President Obama has kept his campaign promises by addressing the economy, Iraq, healthcare, civil liberties, and a host of other issues. Nonetheless, liberals fear Obama is about to make a big mistake in Afghanistan. 

Historians will cite conduct of the Afghanistan war as a major mistake of the Bush presidency. After the United States invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, a series of dreadful administration decisions let Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders responsible for the 9/11 attacks escape and reconstitute in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan. Rather than admit their hunt for bin Laden had failed, the White House shifted focus to Iraq. For the past eight years, despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Pakistan studiously ignored al Qaeda and their Taliban cohorts. 

When asked why the United States has not captured the 9/11 planners President Obama replied, “We took our eye off the ball.... Iraq was an...enormous diversion of resources and attention....There’s no doubt that had we stayed more focused on Afghanistan and the problems there, and had we thought through more effectively Pakistan and its role in this whole process of dealing with extremists, that we would probably be further along now than we are.” The president has assigned veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke to review American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and present a comprehensive report by mid-March. Obama said, “The achievable goal is to make sure [Afghanistan is] not a safe haven for terrorists, to make sure that the Afghan people are able to determine their own fate.” 

After Obama ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan many observers noted a disturbing parallel to Vietnam. Retired Army colonel and professor of international relations Andrew Bacevich warned, “Efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications. No country poses a greater potential threat to U.S. national security—today and for the foreseeable future—than Pakistan. To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.” 

As he reassesses U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, President Obama needs to be mindful of five realities: The first is that the conflict in Afghanistan also involves Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Area, a lawless state. The second reality is that Afghanistan-FATA-Pakistan is a threat to all of Central Asia, an area that includes Iran, India, China, and Russia—because Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are Russian allies, former members of the Soviet Union. 

The third consideration is that Pakistan possesses as many as 100 nuclear warheads that, because of Pakistan’s weak civilian government, are under the control of the army and the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Many observers believe that the Pakistani army-ISI has cut a deal with the al Qaeda-Taliban leaders in FATA: “You stay out of the rest of Pakistan and we will leave you alone.” (The same reporters believe the army-ISI sees Hindu India, not Muslim terrorists in FATA, as the primary threat to Pakistan.) 

The fourth reality is that there is no effective central government in Afghanistan. Recently, Dexter Filkins, the veteran New York Times reporter in the region, noted, “Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it. A raft of investigations has concluded that people at the highest levels of the Karzai administration, including President Karzai’s own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, are cooperating in the country’s opium trade.” (Unlike Iraq, where three ethic-religious factions dominate politics, Afghanistan is Balkanized, a conglomeration of warlord states.) 

The fifth consideration is that opium fuels Afghan politics: “Since its liberation from Taliban rule, Afghanistan’s opium production has gone from 640 tons in 2001 to 8,200 tons in 2007... 93 percent of the global opiate market.” Opium brings more than $3 billion into the Afghan economy, 35 percent of its GDP. 

Any Obama Afghanistan initiative should involve China, India, Iran, and Russia, as well as NATO. To build a new coalition to eradicate al Qaeda, the United States must establish regular diplomatic relations with Iran and mend relations with China and Russia. This endeavor needs the participation of both India and Pakistan; to ensure this, the United States should help them resolve their longstanding conflict over Kashmir. Our strategic focus should be on quashing al Qaeda rather than “democratization” of Afghanistan-FATA-Pakistan, but the U.S. must bring stability to the Afghan economy by finding a suitable substitute for their opium crop. One tactic would be to legalize production of opium and for the United States and its allies to purchase all that is produced, while facilitating transition to comparable revenue sources. 

Thus, Obama faces two daunting challenges: stopping the recession from becoming a multi-year depression and preventing Afghanistan-FATA-Pakistan from sliding into a quagmire. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at