The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Kissinger's Take

Even at his advanced age, Henry Kissinger remains an astute geopolitical operator. Like him or not, the man gets it—he understands the Machiavellian nature of interchanges between nations. His broad experience allows him to fully appreciate the complexities of insurgency warfare. His successes and failures have tempered his view with a heavy doses of reality.

So, when Henry Kissinger talks about Afghanistan, it’s worth paying attention. In a recent article in Newsweek, he writes:
No outside force has, since the Mongol invasion, ever pacified the entire country. Even Alexander the Great only passed through. Afghanistan has been governed, if at all, by a coalition of local feudal or semifeudal rulers. In the past, any attempt to endow the central government with overriding authority has been resisted by some established local rulers. That is likely to be the fate of any central government in Kabul, regardless of its ideological coloration and perhaps even its efficiency. It would be ironic if, by following the received counterinsurgency playbook too literally, we produced another motive for civil war. Can a civil society be built on a national basis in a country which is neither a nation nor a state?

In a partly feudal, multiethnic society, fundamental social reform is a long process, perhaps unrelatable to the rhythm of our electoral processes. For the foreseeable future, the control from Kabul may be tenuous and its structure less than ideal. More emphasis needs to be given to regional efforts and regional militia. This would also enhance our political flexibility. A major effort is needed to encourage such an evolution.

Concurrently, a serious diplomatic effort is needed to address the major anomaly of the Afghan war. In all previous American ground-combat efforts, once the decision was taken, there was no alternative to America's leading the effort; no other country had the combination of resources or national interest required. The special aspect of Afghanistan is that it has powerful neighbors or near neighbors—Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran. Each is threatened in one way or another and, in many respects, more than we are by the emergence of a base for international terrorism: Pakistan by Al Qaeda; India by general jihadism and specific terror groups; China by fundamentalist Shiite jihadists in Xinjiang; Russia by unrest in the Muslim south; even Iran by the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban. Each has substantial capacities for defending its interests. Each has chosen, so far, to stand more or less aloof.

The question that the Obama administration should be asking isn’t only whether we should add more troops, subtract them, or leave the Afghan theater altogether. Those questions imply a unilateral approach to an intractable problem. The answer is important but it is not sufficient. The president should also be asking what actions should we take to force those who stand “aloof” to become more actively involved. You’ll note that I used the word “force,” not the word "convince."

Part of Barack Obama’s persona appears to be his seemingly endless faith that through force of personality he can convince both friends and adversaries to act in the interests of the United States. To be generous, that’s an attitude that is naïve. To be more harsh, it’s an attitude that boarders on extreme hubris. It’s also an attitude that is dangerous to our national interests.

Can events in Afghanistan be molded in a way that threatens the national interests of Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and Iran, force them to act against the Taliban? What can we do to force those events to occur? If they do occur, will the actions of Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and Iran provide unintended strategic assistance for our national interests? Those are the questions that must be answered by the President.

His first step should be to re-read “The Prince” by Niccolo Macchiavlli. Lacking that, he might give Henry Kissinger a call.