|Obama Can’t Make Russian Mistake in Afghanistan
|Albert R. Hunt
Zbigniew Brzezinski says a central consideration for President Barack Obama, as he faces an agonizing choice over Afghanistan, is what happened to the Russians in the 1980s and after they were driven out in 1989.
Brzezinski’s views deserve attention. Few policy makers have studied Afghanistan as long; he was Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser during the Soviet invasion of 1979. He has Obama’s interests at heart -- he was a prominent supporter during the presidential campaign -- and is the most respected Democratic geopolitical thinker outside the administration.
Thirty years ago, after initial concerns the Russians would succeed in Afghanistan, it became clear to Brzezinski that once they were viewed as “occupiers,” they would be thwarted and eventually driven out. He doesn’t want Obama to make the same mistake with a mindless escalation. Thus, he is skeptical of the request of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, for as many as 40,000 additional combat troops.
“General McChrystal’s recommendation makes sense in a narrow military framework; he has been given a particular task, to defeat the counterinsurgency,” Brzezinski says.
“But suppose the counterinsurgency becomes a bigger insurgency,” he goes on. “This is why I’ve been saying let’s not do what the Russians did.”
In short, let’s not get into the nation-building business. “We’ve had some sort of a notion that we build a modern society, democracy, with the help of Western-type Afghans.”
While former President George W. Bush “theologized” that concept, “Obama no longer embraces that theology,” Brzezinski says. “But let’s face it: Two years ago, what did he know about Afghanistan?”
The former top national security aide is no soft-liner and thinks it would be a disaster to withdraw from Afghanistan or set deadlines for getting out. That brings up what the U.S. did after the Russians had to retreat.
“Our biggest mistake was in 1989,” he says. “The Taliban arose not because of what we did in Afghanistan to help defeat the Soviets. They arose because of what we did not do in Afghanistan, which was to continue helping after the Soviets were driven out.”
Looking at these Afghanistan bookends, he says Obama should “draw those two lessons together.”
‘Have to Stay’
“We have to stay in Afghanistan politically and economically,” he says, “but at the same time we must not make the war against the Taliban our central preoccupation, thereby giving them the opportunity to label us the way the Soviets became labeled, as enemies of Afghans.”
The Brzezinski view seems strikingly similar to the perspective of another surprising source, the Pakistani intelligence agency. America has long been suspicious of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, which has been infiltrated by Islamic fundamentalists. Now, the Obama administration believes that after the Taliban’s march toward Islamabad, there may be a genuine awakening on the terrorism threat in the ISI, which had previously been focused almost exclusively on countering India.
Last week, in a fascinating interview, both for the unusual access and the substance, with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the top Pakistani intelligence official, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, expressed skepticism about any U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan. At the same, he showed deep concern the U.S. would pull back from its commitments in the region.
“The ISI leadership thinks the United States can’t afford to lose in Afghanistan, and it worries about a security vacuum there that would endanger Pakistan,” Ignatius reported. “But at the same time, the ISI fears that a big military surge, like up to the 40,000 additional troops McChrystal wants, could be counterproductive.”
It can be reliably reported that this also reflects the views of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who wants more emphasis on the economic and political development in the region. The Pakistanis are very encouraged by recent congressional action in approving a measure cosponsored by Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar providing $7.5 billion of economic aid over the next five years.
Obama has taken on more than a few tough issues this year, though the Afghanistan decision, for the first time, is producing serious fissures among his top policy makers. Vice President Joe Biden and leading Democratic lawmakers are deeply skeptical of the request from McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; most, not all, of the military, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her high-powered Afghanistan-Pakistan special representative, Richard Holbrooke, are sympathetic.
A pivotal figure in this debate, Brzezinski guesses, will be Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush holdover, who commands considerable respect in Washington. It isn’t clear where Obama will come down; it will be a surprise, however, if it isn’t somewhere close to where Gates is.
While opposing a wide-scale escalation, and deeper American involvement, Brzezinski says “some troop increases may be necessary maybe to hold Kandahar, maybe to hold the main cities in general. But beyond that, where is this sort of dawn in sight in a period of some darkness? I do not see that yet.”
Much of the current revaluation, Obama’s top advisers say, stems from the discredited August election in Afghanistan and the ineffective president -- Hamid Karzai.
Brzezinski responds that Karzai may not be a bargain, but to cut him off would be a flawed approach. “If someone says to me dump Karzai, my question always is, ‘who do you replace him with?’” he asks. “We do not ostentatiously pick and dump rulers.”
This line of reasoning, he recalls, makes the increasingly cited analogy to Vietnam more appropriate. In 1963, the U.S. engineered the removal of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem; it didn’t produce the desired results: “We dumped Diem without having an alternative,” Brzezinski says.
The Vietnam analogies remain haunting. On Obama’s nightstand is Gordon Goldstein’s acclaimed biography of McGeorge Bundy, “Lessons in Disaster,” which describes the flawed decision-making of Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam quagmire