Op Ed
March 27, 2009

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Knotty problems

by Tom Klammer

On March 26, in a segment titled “Afghans Urge Obama to Send Aid, Not Troops, to Afghanistan,” Democracy Now ran a clip from a report on Afghanistan by journalist Pratrap Chatterjee that included a comment by a Northern Alliance member of the Afghan Parliament. The parliamentarian recited a proverb in Persian, then explained, “It means that when it is still possible to untie a knot by your fingers, do not do it by your teeth. So this means that whenever it’s possible to solve a problem through negotiating, you don’t have to fight.”

The Bush administration tied a U.S. knot in Afghanistan seven years ago. President Obama has given some indications of trying to untie the knot with his fingers, but has mostly been flashing a lot of teeth. At this writing, a White House review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is poised for release, but not yet out. A Reuters article on the coming review says that in addition to the 17,000 soldiers already ordered to be sent to Afghanistan by President Obama, the United States plans to add thousands of troops to help train Afghan forces (think advisors in Vietnam).

Last July, the Rand Corporation published a study titled “How Terrorist Groups End, Lessons for Countering al Qai‘da.” The Rand Corporation, sometimes known as the Pentagon‘s private think tank, is no liberal, pacifist outfit. The study looked at 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, and found that most terrorist groups ended by political processes, and that when a transition to nonviolence was not possible, policing was much more likely to be effective than military action. In the so-called “war on terror,” the study called for a “light U.S. military footprint or none at all.”

Rand even criticized the use of the term “war on terror,” saying that it raises public expectations of non-existent battlefield solutions to the problem of terrorism. Last September, I interviewed Seth Jones, principle author of the Rand study, and he said the term works quite well against us in propaganda on “jihadi websites” and he told me that “the British, the Australians, everyone has dropped the use of the ‘war on terror’ phrase.” Everyone except us.

President Obama is obviously a very bright guy, but has he been caving to political pressure to talk, and act, tough on the “war on terror?”

On the White House website, I read that President Obama and Vice President Biden will “finish the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” and “Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security — the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, …”

Good luck with the NATO allies.

And that’s pretty tough-sounding talk. And look at whom he’s apparently listening to, and who he’s appointed to key positions. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has boasted about his Afghan trap for the Soviets and has dismissed the importance of the resulting blowback against us as relatively unimportant, was a campaign advisor. After Obama was elected, he retained Robert Gates as secretary of defense. Gates served on the Iraq Study Group, which prescribed an “un-surge” in Iraq, but quickly embraced a surge in order to curry favor with then-President Bush. As ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern pointed out, the surge worked: It prevented a definitive loss of the Iraq War on Bush’s watch, and it got Bobby Gates a job at the Defense Department. Even Obama parroted the rhetoric of the surge in Iraq working “beyond our wildest dreams.“ Are we now looking forward to a similar surge in Afghanistan?

And whom has Obama nominated to be ambassador to Afghanistan? Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, former Commanding General, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan. I don’t know a lot about the general, he might even be a good choice. But a wise man once suggested to me that sometimes the problem with military leaders in non-military roles is that they are like hammers; to them everything looks like nail. So I have to wonder.

President Obama needs to look at the knot in Afghanistan and think about using his fingers to untie it. There will be plenty of other things to chew on.

Tom Klammer hosts Tell Somebody on KKFI 90.1 FM, Tuesdays at 6 pm.


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