Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Obama's following in Bush's footsteps - The reconstruction of Afghanistan

There is a condition afflicting Republicans all over the country called Obama Derangement Syndrome or ODS. Symptoms include an inability to take our president at his word, a certainty that everything he does has an ulterior (read: socialist/statist/un-American) motive, and a belief that he was raised as a secret muslim/Nazi/Black Panther while living with his white grandparents in Kansas.

On the other end of the spectrum is Obama Fanboy Disease (OFD), a condition that suppresses one's ability to criticize our president in any way. I've been accused of suffering from OFD because I haven't taken issue with anything he's done since I was the first columnist in America to predict he would become our 44th president (back in April of 2007). That streak ends today.

Last week's decision to fire the commander of our military forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (aka Frat Boy Stan), was the correct one; but the decision to continue George W. Bush's policy in Afghanistan was a mistake. Generations of warfare have left just about every institution of Afghan society needing to be built or re-built from the ground up, and the last 30 years have proven that country to be critical to the health and safety of the free world. America's role in the nation (re)building process must, by definition, be directed by our Department of State and not our Department of Defense. So while it's good that Frat Boy Stan is out on his frat boy can, I'm still waiting for the day President Obama sends Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Provincial Reconstruction Teams in to take over.

It's important to keep in mind that the "war" part of the war in Afghanistan has been over since at least 2003 when NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). NATO says its main role is to "assist the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in exercising and extending its authority and influence across the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance." That reconstruction, and not breaking the Taliban's momentum, should be the focus — if for no other reason than we won't be able to bring our troops home until that effective governance is in place.

Unfortunately for Commander in Chief Obama, the United States Army can't solve the problems that come from reconstruction or from establishing a strong central government. As deadly efficient as military problem solving is, the Army is great at two things: killing people and breaking stuff. If we cared less about civilians, we could kill our way out of our Taliban trouble over a long weekend. But our official Rules of Engagement are designed to protect the local population so we can win the hearts and minds of the natives when the Army comes in to "clear, hold, and build." The problem is that the Army doesn't "build" anything; and we won't be able to end this military campaign (which has now lasted longer than the Vietnam War) until responsibility is transferred to an organization that knows a thing or two about how to build a nation.

That's where President Obama should be focusing our attention and not, as President Bush did in Iraq, distracting us with talk of which general is in command and what tactics are being employed. President Obama should be reminding us that the mission in Afghanistan was authorized by the U.N. Security Council and is being conducted under the auspices of an alliance of 28 countries. We know that the size and destructive power of the U.S. armed forces makes us first among equals in that group, but that status becomes irrelevant when the way forward is diplomatic, not military.

Think back to Iraq in the late summer of 2003. The invasion was over, Saddam was gone, the U.S. military had de-facto control on the ground, and it was time to re-build. That was when the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad became a target for so many deadly bomb attacks that the organization pulled out of the country. For the next three years, President Bush tasked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, not Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, with re-building Iraq. Four years after Sec. Rumsfeld was fired, people who live in the historic (and sweltering) capital of Baghdad get maybe six hours of electricity per day because the U.S. military knows much more about how to destroy power grids than how to operate them.

President Obama is making a mistake by talking about generals more than the diplomatic work that will allow our troops to come home where they belong. If he insists on continuing Bush administration policy, he should at least use the buying power of the Pentagon to promote some kind of economic development for the people of Afghanistan. It's great that our counter-insurgency plan is designed to protect civilians, but they still have to eat. Don't forget Kandahari pomegranates are the best in the world. Exports of the fruit bring in as much money per acre as poppies, but without epidemic dependency or the narco-dollars the Taliban use to undermine the leadership in Kabul and make the "effective governance" we need in order to bring our troops home more and more elusive.


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