Tom Ricks’ Three Questions

Yesterday on his blog, military analyst Tom Ricks said that President Obama needs to answer the following questions in his upcoming speech about his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan:

1. “What are we going to do about the corruption and abuses of the Afghan government, arguably a more troublesome foe than the Taliban?

2. “How does what we are doing relate to the security problems in Pakistan, to me a far bigger worry than anything happening in Afghanistan?

3. “Perhaps most importantly, is his heart in it, and can he bring along a good portion of the American people, especially part of his base? Or is he gonna say we’re giving it 12 months and then we’re outta here?”

Here are my answers to those questions:

1. It will be very difficult for the US to do anything that will curb corruption and other forms of government abuse in Afghanistan.  Some argue that threatening to withdraw American troops will scare Afghan leaders who rely on US support to maintain power and compel them to crackdown on corrupt officials, but such threats will not be credible if the Obama administration believes the war effort is critical for national security; and if at any point the administration no longer believes the war is necessary the integrity of the Afghan government will not matter because the US will pullout regardless.

2. The surge will do little to affect the situation in Pakistan where the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are located.  The Pakistanis are reluctant to take on the militants, partly because they believe the US will eventually withdraw and the Afghan Taliban may return to power, in which case the Pakistanis will want to have a friendly partner in Kabul.  And the US will not send any of the new ground troops into Pakistan, but will solely rely on drone airstrikes to eliminate targets there because the administration does not want to destabilize a country that has nuclear weapons a many Islamic extremists.

3. President Obama will probably be able to garner support from a slim majority of Americans after he explains the new strategy on national television, but he will have to rely on Republicans and Independents for support because most Democrats will continue to oppose escalation.  He will almost certainly reiterate that the US commitment to Afghahanistan is not open-ended, but it is unlikely that he will set a specific timetable for withdraw because he does not want to tie his hands with regards to future policy decisions.

Mr. Ricks believes that if the president uses the words “exit strategy” or spends a lot of time talking about when the US will leave Afghansitan he will suffer the same fate as Jimmy Carter and lose the next election.  Such a prediction is absurd because a lot of things could happen between now and 2012 that will affect his prospects for reelection, including a change in the state of the economy.  And history contradicts Mr. Ricks’ assertion; Richard Nixon was reelected by a landslide in 1972 long after he began withdrawing US troops from Vietnam and promoting Vietnamization as an exit strategy.

On a final note, the reader’s comment about wanting to hear Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, express his opinion about the way forward in Afghanistan is interesting.  Gen. Petraeus has been largely silent on the subject thus far, and his silence may be a consequence of the administration’s negative reaction to the decision by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, to publicly voice his opinion about what the strategy in Afghanistan should be.

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