America, the weak horse by choice

Osama bin Laden famously said that “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” The truth of that statement depends on which meaning of the word “like” is being employed. People may not like the strong horse in the sense of feeling kindly disposed towards it. But they will tend to like that horse in the sense of backing it. (The question, “who do you like in the fifth race today” is a question about which horse one is backing not which horse one wants to pet).
The wisdom of bin Laden’s statement is confirmed once again by the Afghan government’s tilt away from the U.S. and towards Pakistan and the Taliban. According to the Washington Post, Afghanistan is talking with Pakistan about how to make peace with the insurgents who are fighting U.S. troops, including the deadly and bitterly anti-American faction led by Sirajuddin Haqqani.
The Afghan government isn’t taking this approach because it feels well disposed towards Pakistan, much less towards the blood-thirsty Haqqani. It is doing so because it realizes that, with President Obama having made clear that the U.S. lacks the will to stay in the fight, Pakistan and the Afghan insurgents are the strong horse and U.S. is the weak one.
To be sure, joining forces with formerly hostile forces can be a good strategy. The U.S. adopted it during the Iraq surge, when we worked with certain nationalistic factions that previously had fought against us but were ready to turn on al Qaeda and other foreign fighters.
But that’s not what’s going on in Afghanistan. According to the Post, Haqqani increasingly is cooperating with al Qaeda. Furthermore, his forces include foreign fighters and “are largely drawn from the madrassas and thus tend to be [particularly] extreme.” His style, says the Post, “embodies the Taliban’s vanguard: younger commanders driven more by anti-Western zeal than the nationalistic aspirations of their elders.”
Thus, even the Obama administration, which has prided itself in being willing to talk to anyone, isn’t ready (at least yet) to deal with Haqqani. The Post reports that “administration officials have cautioned Afghanistan and Pakistan that they will not support talks with Haqqani’s militia.” They have also insisted that the U.S. “be treated as full partners and not be surprised.”
But what will the U.S. do if we are not treated as full partners, threaten to start leaving Afghanistan in six months, instead of a year?
Speaking of leaving Afghanistan sooner rather than a little later, Great Britain’s new Minister of Defense, has said he wants to withdraw British units from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, and Prime Minister Cameron is said to be preparing for a “rapid withdrawal.” Like the Afghan government, the Brits see Obama’s weakness and are reacting accordingly. You might pet a weak horse, but you’d be a fool to back it.
Since his emergence as a national figure, Obama has fretted about America’s lack of popularity in the world. It does not seem to have occurred to him that, though being disliked may be unpleasant, the most serious trouble begins when a nation is viewed with contempt by its enemies and with pity by its friends.
Or perhaps Obama cannot conceive that a nation he’s in charge of might be viewed with contempt or pity. But if he were able to reflect, free from the constraints of his ego, his education, and his ideology, on events in Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and Russia, the perception would strike him as far less implausible. How else can one perceive a nation that elects to be the weak horse?

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