Afghanistan: Shoals Ahead for President Obama

Obama has founded his campaign and become attractive to the American voters in large part on the basis of his position on the Iraq war.  He opposed it publicly since 2002.  He has called it a “dumb” war.  He voted against the “surge.”  He has called for a withdrawal over 16 months of all combat troops.  He has refused to agree that it was wrong to oppose the surge.

While doing all that, he has always argued that the United States should do more in Afghanistan.  This explicitly includes sending 10,000 more troops as soon as possible.  He does not seem to think that the war there is somehow dumb.  He does seem to think that the United States can “win” that war — with more troops and with more assistance from NATO.  Once president, he may be in for a rude surprise.

Obama would do well to reflect upon the recent interview in Le Monde given by Gérard Chaliand.   Chaliand is a leading geostrategist, specializing in so-called irregular wars.  He knows Afghanistan exceedingly well, having been in and out of there over the last thirty years.  He spent much time with the mujahidin during their struggle against Soviet troops in the 1980s.  He currently spends several months a year in Kabul at the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, of which he was one of the founders.

He is very clear on the military situation. “Victory is impossible in Afghanistan. . . .  Today, one must try to negotiate.  There is no other solution.”  Why?  Because the Taliban control the local powers throughout the east and south of the country, where Pashtun populations prevail.  Doubling the number of Western troops, doubling the projected size of the government’s army, and spending far more than the present 10% of outside aid for economic development might change the situation.  But Chaliand doubts, and so do I, that this is politically likely for the United States and the NATO countries.  The German Foreign Minister has already warned Obama not to press Germany for more troops to fight the Taliban.  It is not that the Taliban can win either, says Chaliand.  Rather there is a “military impasse.”  The Taliban, who are geopolitically astute, are patiently waiting until the West “gets tired of a war that drags on.”

To see how the United States has got itself into this cul-de-sac, we have to go back a little bit into history.  Since the nineteenth century, Afghanistan has been the focal point of the “great game” between Russia and Great Britain (now succeeded by the United States).  No one has ever gained long-term control over this crucial zone of transit.

Today, Afghanistan has on its border a state called Pakistan, which has a large Pashtun population precisely on the border.  Pakistan’s prime geopolitical interest is to have a friendly Afghanistan, lest India — but also Russia, the United States, and/or Iran — come to dominate it.  Pakistan has been supporting in one way or another the Pashtun majority, which today means the Taliban.  Pakistan is not about to stop doing this.

Under President Carter, the United States decided to try to oust a so-called Communist government deemed too close to Russia.  We know now, via the release of archives from the Carter administration as well as via a famous interview given ten years ago by Zbigniew Brzezinski, then Carter’s National Security Advisor, that U.S. support of the mujahidin predated by at least six months the intrusion of Soviet troops.  Indeed, one of the objectives was precisely to lure the Soviet Union into intervening militarily on the correct assumption that this would ultimately badly misfire and weaken the Soviet regime at home.  Bravo!  It did that.  But the U.S. policy also at the same time spawned both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban — a classic case of blowback for the United States.  In any case, none other than Brzezinski is warning Obama against repeating the Soviet error.

So, Obama is promising something today he is in no position to deliver.  It is all very well for him to receive the implicit endorsement of the Iraqi government for his Iraq proposals.  He is riding high on that, and will reap credit from the U.S. and world public for his stance.  But he can undo that credit by failing to deliver on an impossible promise concerning Afghanistan.  His gang of 300 advisors is not serving him very well on this issue.  Obama knows how to be prudent when necessary.  He is not being very prudent at all on Afghanistan.

Immanuel Wallerstein is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, State University of New York at Binghamton.  Among his numerous books are The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989), Unthinking Social Science (1991), After Liberalism (1995), The End of the World As We Know It  (1999), and The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (2003).  This commentary was published on 1 August 2008.  © Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global.  For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, contact:, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606.  Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed.  To contact author, write:  Visit the archive of Wallerstein’s previous commentaries at <>.  These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.

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