When I hear either Obama or McCain discuss their Big Important Plans for the Middle East, one thing I wonder is, where are you going to get the troops? Aren't we already wearing down the people we have over there with multiple tours of duty and longer assignments?
Another thing I wonder is, Are either of these guys remotely connected to reality? McCain has been smoking some neo-con gange for a long time now, and his pipe dreams scare me the most. But Obama's Middle Eastern tour has revealed some scary fantasies of his own, so says Juan Cole.
Obama's aggressive stance, on the other hand, could be counterproductive. The Illinois senator had praised the Pakistani elections of last February, issuing a statement the next day saying, "Yesterday, a moderate majority of the Pakistani people made their voices heard, and chose a new direction." He criticized the Bush administration, saying U.S. interests would be better served by "advancing the interests of the Pakistani people, not just Pakistan's president."
Yet the parties elected in February in Pakistan are precisely the ones demanding negotiations with the tribes and militants of the northwest, rather than frontal military assaults. Indeed, it is the Bush administration that has pushed for military strikes in the FATA areas. Obama will have to decide whether he wants to risk undermining the elected government and perhaps increasing the power of the military by continuing to insist loudly and publicly on unilateral U.S. attacks on Pakistani territory.
Nor is it at all clear that sending more U.S. troops to southern Afghanistan can resolve the problem of the resurgence of the Taliban there. American and NATO search-and-destroy missions alienate the local population and fuel, rather than quench, the insurgency. Resentment over U.S. airstrikes on innocent civilians and wedding parties is growing. Brazen attacks on U.S. forward bases and on institutions such as the prison in the southern city of Kandahar are becoming more frequent. To be sure, Obama advocates combining counterinsurgency military operations with development aid and attention to resolving the problem of poppy cultivation. (Afghan poppies are turned into heroin for the European market, and the profits have fueled some of the Taliban's resurgence.) Stepped-up military action, however, is still the central component of his plan.
Before he jumps into Afghanistan with both feet, Obama would be well advised to consult with another group of officers. They are the veterans of the Russian campaign in Afghanistan. Russian officers caution that Afghans cannot be conquered, as the Soviets attempted to do in the 1980s with nearly twice as many troops as NATO and the U.S. now have in the country, and with three times the number of Afghan troops as Karzai can deploy. Afghanistan never fell to the British or Russian empires at the height of the age of colonialism. Conquering the tribal forces of a vast, rugged, thinly populated country proved beyond their powers. It may also well prove beyond the powers even of the energetic and charismatic Obama. In Iraq, he is listening to what the Iraqis want. In Pakistan, he is simply dictating policy in a somewhat bellicose fashion, and ignoring the wishes of those moderate parties whose election he lauded last February.