I had every best intention of doing little more than to acknowledge that president Obama made some sort of speech about some sort of strategy in some sort of country called Afghanistan, but people keep writing about it and I keep reading about it and, well, you know.
Most recently, I read the reaction from Slate’s Fred Kaplan. Kaplan is ok, generally, but he’s subject to sudden enthusiasms that tend to cloud his judgement. As are we all to one degree or another, but most of us aren’t paid to indulge them. Although some of us wish we were.
What first struck me about Kaplan’s take was what struck him as the best moment of the speech.
This line in the speech was particularly encouraging: “We will support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people”—suggesting that if President Hamid Karzai doesn’t come through on his recent promises, we will cultivate tribal or community centers of power, which, given the nature of Afghan society, are crucial to fending off insurgents in any case.
Kaplan’s reaction is entertaining, what with its implicit colonialism and the begged question of where insurgents come from and who they’re fighting. But Obama’s line, once Kaplan drew my attention to it, struck me as particularly bizarre.
Among the Obama administration’s measures of success for the new effort is the establishment of an effective Afghan army. One can’t have a national army without a legitimate and effective national government. One can’t have a legitimate and effective national government if one undermines it by cultivating “tribal or community centers of power” and, as Obama said, “ministries … that combat corruption and deliver for the people.” The notion is a recipe for bolstering independent fiefdoms and creating opposed power centers within the alleged national government, neither of which will disappoint the Taliban and other forces either opposed or indifferent to the US.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: Opium. Opium, from culitvation to production to trade, is second only to foreign aid as a slice of Afghanistan’s GDP. There’s not the slightest chance that Obama’s reference to corruption doesn’t include the influence of opium money at every level of Afghan government and civil society. It’s everywhere, fueling everything.
Yet there’s barely a mention of it in Obama’s speech and none at all in Kaplan’s analysis. A reading of the tea leaves suggests that the plan is to throw cash at leaders and institutions promising to forswear opium money and perhaps inhibit opium production, but that money is ultimately going to wind up somewhere and the somewhere won’t be any place that advances stated US interests, or at least not in any way that can be acknowledged.
Kaplan has elsewhere announced his fidelity (one of those sudden enthusiasms) to the idea of effectively dismantling the federal government (theirs, not ours) by surrendering the goal of building a working national army and instead creating what amounts to a confederation of Afghan city states, each with its own militia, so his embrace of Obama’s nod toward that strategy isn’t surprising.
But man, there’s money to be made; expecting or even hoping that more or less autonomous local or regional governments will devote themselves to born-again opium virginity, and expecting or hoping that the national government, such as it is, will stand idly by while the US attempts to devolve what power it has, is to dive head first down the rabbit hole.
All of which is to say that the “new” “strategy,” like the ones that preceded it and the ones no doubt to come, is nothing but a pipe dream.