by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
April 3, 2009
WILL OBAMA'S PRESIDENCY DIE ON THE PLAINS OF AFGHANISTAN?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The British couldn't win there.
The Russians couldn't win there.
Nearly every army over the past 2,500 years - with the exception of Alexander the Great - has been defeated in Afghanistan.
That's why Americans ought to be nervous about the chances of success for the Obama Administration's strategy for Afghanistan unveiled last week.
The best part of the Obama plan is an increase in civilian aid, and developing a "surge" of agricultural, educational, legal and engineering experts to go along with the planned increase of U.S. forces. The hope is that other countries and international aid groups will contribute to the U.S. civilian surge. That's because we need all the help we can get.
Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jaladi has called his country "the theme park of problems." He is not exaggerating. Seventy percent of Afghans live on less than $2 a day. The national literacy rate is 28 percent. Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations of any nation, with an average life expectancy of 45 years and the world's highest infant mortality rates.
Afghanistan has no substantial industry. Subsistence farming is the main occupation. Its most profitable product is opium, as it is where 92 percent of the world's supply comes from. There is no real road network and travel is difficult even under peacetime conditions.
It has no legitimate national government and most Afghans have no living memory of what it's like to live under a centralized state. Its political power is carved up into hundreds of little fiefdoms ruled by heavily armed tribal warlords.
There may be 80,000 police officers in Afghanistan, but they are better known for their skills at graft than their fighting ability. It will take years to turn these men into an effective fighting force, but even if it happens, there's no money to pay them.
In short, it is going to take a huge international effort and resources far beyond what has been committed to this point to improve the situation in Afghanistan. While President Obama's goal is "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future," it will take more than brute force to do it.
President Obama is also seeking more aid for Pakistan, to boost democracy and economic development. This too is wise, because the fates of Pakistan and Afghanistan are linked. Pakistan is where Taliban militants and elements of al-Qaida have their staging areas.
The government in Pakistan is not terribly stable, and many military and diplomatic experts feel that escalating the military effort in Afghanistan will bolster support for radical Islamic insurgents in Pakistan. Not greatly talked about in the Obama strategy is why elements of the Pakistani government support the jihadi groups - as an essential element to its national self-defense in its long-running confrontation with India.
So into the policy mix of winning the respect of the Afghan people and convincing them to side against the insurgents, and convincing Pakistan to stop offering support to them, one more element will have to be added by the Obama Administration - talking about the future of Kashmir and getting India and Pakistan to end their decades of battle over it.
And, to make things even more difficult, the Obama Administration will also need to convince Iran - which shares a border with Afghanistan and has lost thousands of its soldiers in battles with Afghan drug lords - to help build a more stable relationship with its neighbor.
Even before you talk about military strategy and whether it is a good idea to have up to 60,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, these very knotty diplomatic and economic development strategies have to be dealt with.
President Obama is seeking nothing less than stabilizing the politics and economies of two of the most fractious countries on earth, and doing it in a way that doesn't destabilize Iran, India and the rest of the region. To pull this off would take a miracle.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics at http://hclassics15.blogspot.com.