Overestimating the threat and our power

On Friday, Obama tried to sell America on his plans for escalating the war in Pakganistan. Obama says the “if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”

Obama also said that Afghanistan is linked to the security of Pakistan and that “Al-Qaida and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.”

He’s making a compelling argument that draws on the specter of 9/11. After all, if it happened once in Afghanistan why can’t it happen again? But – and this is a big but –  we’ve been blinded by that brand of fear before when we were originally asked to build new nations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two tasks that in retrospect now seem wildly ambitious given the limits of military power and of our resources.

That’s not say Obama isn’t scaling back the mission. He is. No longer are we focused on creating a democracy in Afghanistan. Now we’re simply focused on creating stability, but even that may be an outsized nation building task.

Juan Cole thinks that Obama is exaggerating the challenge posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda which then needlessly expands our mission in Afghanistan:

There are very few al-Qaida fighters based in Afghanistan proper. What is being called the “Taliban” is mostly not Taliban at all (in the sense of seminary graduates loyal to Mullah Omar). The groups being branded “Taliban” only have substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, and only 4 percent of Afghans say they support them. Some 58 percent of Afghans say that a return of the Taliban is the biggest threat to their country, but almost no one expects it to happen.

… As for a threat to Pakistan, the FATA areas are smaller than Connecticut, with a total population of a little over 3 million, while Pakistan itself is bigger than Texas, with a population more than half that of the entire United States. A few thousand Pashtun tribesmen cannot take over Pakistan, nor can they “kill” it. The Pakistani public just forced a military dictator out of office and forced the reinstatement of the Supreme Court, which oversees secular law. Over three-quarters of Pakistanis said in a poll last summer that they had an unfavorable view of the Taliban, and a recent poll found that 90 percent of them worried about terrorism.

If that’s true, and Afghanistan isn’t the new epicenter of a new domino theory, then perhaps our resources would best be used in a more limited way that reflects the lessons we’ve learned in the last eight years and previously in Vietnam. We could simply strike the terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan and leave the governing and building of those countries to the people their people. It would be a return to the saner strategy of containment that served us so well during the Cold War, rather than one of unending wars and nation building.

2 Comments

  1. Ian

    “we’ve been blinded by that brand of fear”

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but this is kind of like crying wolf. The government keeps crying wolf and then it starts to fall on deaf ears. How do we know when to trust them on a real threat?

    “We could simply strike the terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan and leave the governing and building of those countries to the people their people.”

    Except this violates their sovereignty if we come and go as we please. We would need to be able to strike at a moments notice too if we had good intelligence. I suppose if these countries said we could come and go as we please, this could work. I realize we violate their sovereignty through occupation as well. Its a tough situation.

    “There are very few al-Qaida fighters based in Afghanistan proper. What is being called the “Taliban” is mostly not Taliban at all (in the sense of seminary graduates loyal to Mullah Omar). The groups being branded “Taliban” only have substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, and only 4 percent of Afghans say they support them.”

    I’m not making this argument, but the clear and obvious counter that everyone would make to it is that it only took a handful of people to pull off 9/11. You cannot measure the threat by numbers. The challenge in the war on terrorism is how does a big, slow moving military stop an enemy who does not wear uniforms and uses small numbers to create large amount of destruction.

  2. Chris

    Addressing your last point, I think Cole’s point is that Al Qaeda or the Taliban is not in a position to take over Afghanistan, not that they still aren’t dangerous as terrorists.