Sugarcoating Military Escalation

Recent press reports suggest that President Obama is likely to try to sugarcoat his announcement next week of a major military escalation in Afghanistan with talk of “exit ramps”: opportunities in the future to evaluate and possibly reduce the U.S. military commitment.  That’s supposed to make opponents of military escalation feel better, the media suggests.  The New York Times reports:

The troops will be dispatched in phases, and Mr. Obama is likely to declare that he will review the deployment next year, to evaluate its progress.

“That gives him the flexibility to tell the Democrats that his commitment is limited,” the Times says.

But it’s hard to see why this should be at all reassuring.  After all, we just had such an evaluation, which, despite the widespread view that the present policy has failed, resulted in the policy choice of sending 50% more troops that the President is about to announce.  Why should we expect the next evaluation by the same actors to be substantially different from the one that just took place, if the data is the same?

Indeed, just as the President plans to assure us that we don’t have an open-ended commitment, so he plans to reassure the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and our European allies that we do, in fact, have an open-ended commitment.  Which President Obama should be believed?

Supposedly, we have to tell Pakistan that we are not leaving because if they think that we are leaving, they will hedge their bets and back and protect their ally Mullah Omar, in order to protect their influence and what they perceive to be their national interests in Afghanistan.

But the Pakistanis are already hedging their bets, and have been doing so for years, despite repeated assurances from the U.S. that the U.S. is not leaving.  Why should this round of assurances have any different impact on the Pakistanis than all the previous assurances?

And it’s far from clear that it’s in the interest of the majority of Americans that Pakistan do as the U.S. demands.  U.S. intelligence officials have told the Washington Times that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has “found refuge from potential U.S. attacks” in Karachi “with the assistance of Pakistan’s intelligence service.”  The implication of the Washington Times article is that, if true, this would be a setback for the United States.  Several weeks ago, the New York Times reported, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan suggested that Pakistan should “eliminate” Mullah Omar.  If Pakistan did not get rid of Mullah Omar, the United States would, Ambassador Patterson suggested.

But what the Pakistanis are doing may be in our long-term interest.  The “exit ramp” most likely to lead U.S. troops out of Afghanistan is a political agreement to resolve Afghanistan’s civil war.   That agreement needs signatures, and one of the signatures it needs is Mullah Omar’s.  Are the Afghan Taliban more likely to negotiate a deal that the U.S. can live with if Mullah Omar is eliminated?  The opposite is more likely to be true: it will be harder to negotiate a deal if the U.S. assassinates Mullah Omar.  Mullah Omar has been signaling that he wants a deal.  You can’t say that for other Taliban factions, whose relative position would be strengthened if Mullah Omar is killed.

So, by assassinating Mullah Omar, the U.S. could be blowing up a key exit ramp.  By keeping Mullah Omar on the chessboard, the Pakistanis are helping to preserve an option for a political solution.

Unfortunately, President Obama doesn’t seem to be interested in a political solution yet.  He needs a lot more pressure: more phone calls from across America (the White House comment line is 202-456-1111) and more public manifestations of opposition.  A great opportunity for Americans to show their opposition to military escalation will come next week, when President Obama makes his escalation speech.  Every town that has a newspaper or a TV station should have a local demonstration timed to coincide with the President’s speech, so that people watching and reading the local news will know that people in their community oppose President Obama’s decision.  (You can post information about such an event here.)

Robert Naiman is National Coordinator of Just Foreign Policy.  Naiman also edits the daily Just Foreign Policy news summary and blogs at the Web site of Just Foreign Policy.  This article was first published in the Just Foreign Policy blog on 25 November 2009. 

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