President Obama has asked senior advisers for a province-by-province analysis of Afghanistan to help him determine which regions are being managed effectively by local leaders and which need increased foreign troop support. Obama reportedly will base his decisions about adding U.S. troops at least in part on this analysis.
On its face, this sounds admirable. It seems that Obama is finally delivering on his promise to be a post-partisan president who bases decisions on a careful analysis of the data, not on preconceptions and ideology. In this way, Obama’s review reminds me a little of President Grant heroically reading reports from the South in an attempt to figure out which Reconstruction-era politicians were honest and able enough to warrant continued troop support.
But a closer look at what Obama apparently is going to analyze raises doubts about the seriousness, and even the good faith, of the enterprise. According to the Washington Post, the key questions the administration is hoping to answer are:
(1) How much of the country can we just leave to be run by the locals?;
(2) How do you separate those who have taken up arms because they oppose the presence of foreigners in their area, because they’re getting paid to fight us because we’re there, from those who want to restore a Taliban government?; and
(3) How many of the people who we’re fighting actually share al-Qaeda’s ideology?
The first of these questions is a bit nonsensical in the context of a war. “The locals” might be capable of doing a fine job of running certain regions, but their ability in this regard isn’t relevant if their region is overrun by the Taliban. Moreover, the way local leaders would run their regions, assuming they are not toppled, is likely to be influenced by the extent of the American and “coalition” troop presence. With Americans around they are likely to be (1) more aggressively anti-Taliban and (2) more compliant with our standards of good governance.
The second and third questions are interesting, but how does the administration intend to answer them? Will Obama commission a poll of the people who are killing our soldiers to find out the extent to which they share al-Qaeda’s ideology?
Moreover, even if Obama could determine the reasons why people have taken up arms against us, what conclusions would flow from that determination? Perhaps a large number of people are fighting us because they don’t like foreigners or because they are being paid. This wouldn’t mean that we have nothing to worry about if we abandon the field of battle.
Governments typically are overthrown by a collection of forces each with its own motives and agenda. But the replacement regime is typically made up of those who are the best organized and the most ideologically driven. In this context, that’s probably going to be the Taliban. And, if there really are divisions within the Taliban, the smart money would have to be on the most ideologically driven element. From Russia, to Iran, to Afghanistan 20 years ago, this is the lesson history teaches.
Given the irrelevant and/or imponderable nature of the analysis Obama is about to conduct, I can’t help but wonder whether the whole exercise is designed to yield “answers” that will provide a pseudo-empirical fig leaf for what Obama has already decided he wants to do – reject Gen. McCrystal’s request in whole or in part.