from Lewis L. Smith
Afghanistan is economically, ethnically, geographically and politically one of the worst places in the world for an outsider to try to accomplish anything. This is especially so after Pres. Bush let Usama bin Laden “slip through his fingers” and then wasted six years floundering around in that country, making more enemies than friends for the USA.
Indeed your correspondent believes that no matter what strategy the USA [or any other outsider] adopts, the odds are against a successful outcome. If this appraisal is correct, the best that we can say about Pres. Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan is that it is the least worst of the alternatives. Moreover, he is likely to pay a severe price in electoral abstentions if things go badly, as they more are likely to do than not.
However, in some quarters, he has been severely and unfairly criticized for a key part of his plan — setting a date for the start of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan. A few have even criticized him for putting a limit on the resources which we will commit to “finish the job” in the meantime.
One of the arguments is that the Taliban will simply stay out of the way [or fight the USA to a standstill] until the latter is gone and then take over. However, looking at the bigger picture, your correspondent must strongly disagree, for the following reasons —
 The possibility that Obama might be successful increases if the Taliban “stand aside”. They might even end up having to deal with an Afghanistan government which is considerably stronger than it is now, despite the withdrawal of foreign forces. Of course the odds are against this outcome and so in favor of the Taliban. However the odds are even more in favor of the Taliban if they keep fighting. So why risk betting on a future in which the odds of success might diminish or even turn against them ?
 There are a lot of countries and national leaders who are going to have serious problems, if Pres. Obama is unsuccessful. So the “setting of deadlines” and “placing of limits” gives a serious warning to these countries that “the free ride” is almost over and that they cannot expect the USA to keep shouldering for very much longer, most of the burden of pacifying and rebuilding Afghanistan.
Indeed the setting of deadlines may even induce some of these countries to “join the fray”, especially if one or both of the Taliban groups seem to be winning. And it may also induce Iran and/or Pakistan to take stronger action than they are now. Iran is already fighting on its own soil drug dealers allied with the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistan is fighting the Pakistani Taliban and other “hardliners”, especially in Waziristan and the NW Frontier Area.
These countries and leaders include —
The Karsi regime is corrupt and incompetent. Many of its key ministers cannot even spend all of the Afghan funds appropriated to them by the legislature for infrastructure and economic development. In fact, most ministers spent less on such programs in 2008 than in 2007 ! And the Afghan army and police cannot keep order or preserve security in much of the country. In fact, the Taliban exercise effective control over a significant amount of the national territory. If Karsi does not get his act together very soon, ”his goose is probably cooked”.
China has various Muslim minorities, some of which are waging non-conventional warfare against the central government and/or fomenting public disturbances against local governments. And China does not need any more local disturbances. By the central government’s own admission, there were some 70,000 throughout the country in 2008 ! Almost all were motivated by grievences against local or regional authorities, but if some of that anger were to be redirected against the dictatorship, watch out ! As the Ukranian grandfather of a close friend told him, “In the old days, when things were bad, the peasants said that the Czar had bad advisors. Then one day, they figured out who appointed those advisors !”
A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would naturally acerbate this problem, especially if it were accompanied by a reconciliation with al-Qaeda.
[However, don't bet on a reconciliation. The Afghani Taliban seem to be veering towards a more nationalistic stance. seeking power only in Afghanistan and good relations with Muslims elsewhere. By way of contrast, al Qaeda still thinks internationally and for example, wants to overthrow "heretical" Muslim regimes, such as those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the Taliban are still angry at al Qaeda for costing them control of Afghanistan, by the latter's imprudent attack on the World Trade Center in NYC. Al Qaeda's recent ship in strategy suggests that it too is loosing faith in a reconciliation. See Somalia below.]
India has already been the occasional target of Pakistani hard liners, including the Pakistani Taliban, a prime example being the terrorist attack on Mombai. Moreover, India would be directly and seriously threatened by a Taliban takeover of Pakistan, particularly if the Taliban get their hands on the its atom bombs. Such a takeover is of course more likely if the Afghani Taliban first get control of Afghanistan.
Iran would be seriously threatened by a Taliban takeover of either Afghanistan or Pakistan, especially if accompanied by reconciliation, for at least five reasons —
[a] Iran is Shi’ite; al-Qaeda and the Taliban are Sunni, albeit of different “flavors” and presently not on very good terms.
[While al Qaeda has "blown hot and cold" as to collaboration with Shi'ites in Iraq, Israel and Palestine, it has been and still is violently anti-Shi'ite in most places, most of the time. So most people in the Middle East take their cue from the latter pattern of behavior.]
[b] Iran is attempting to suppress a violent protest against regional and religious discrimination by its Sunni minority.
[At the same time, Iran is simultaneously supporting regional autonomy for Shi'ites in Yemen !]
[c] Within Iran, the government is already is engaged in violent conflict with drug dealers based in Afghanistan, most of whom are allied with the Afghani Taliban, as noted above.
[The latter obtain a sizable minority of their income from drug production and drug running, despite their highly public religious orientation.]
[d] Iran’s theocrats are worried about the effect of drugs on the religiosity of the Iranian youth, especially now that some university students are beginning to repudiate the late Ayatollah Khomeni, “founding father” of the present regime, and his successors in power. In fact, the recent riots with their physical attacks on police, verbal attacks on top clerics and denunciations of the theocratic system under which Iran is governed provide many warning signs of a generational split within that country.
[e] Iranian atom bombs are of no use against the Taliban.
Predominantly Shi’ite Iraq would also be threatened by a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, especially if accompanied by reconciliation with al Qaeda.
Local Taliban and other disgruntled minorities have effectively taken over control of parts of the country and are engaged in an all-out war with the Government, by both conventional and non-conventional means. And as previously noted, Pakistan has atom bombs.
Russia has various Muslim minorities, particularly in the Caucasus region, some of which are waging non-conventional warfare and/or promoting public disturbances against the government. This problem was supposedly “solved” in 2002 by completion of the Russian takeover of the Chechen Republic. In fact, it has simply been dispersed throughout the Caucasus region and gotten worse.
A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would naturally acerbate this problem.
Al Qaeda is already engaged in a low-level war of assassination attempts and sabotage of oil and gas facilities in this country and also against neighboring Yemen, after a brief flirtation with the latter’s government, which is fighting a Shi’ite rebellion in its northeast quadrant, next to Saudi Arabia.
So Saudi Arabia is another country which for which a Taliban takeover wherever is likely to create problems, especially if accompanied by a reconciliation with al Qaeda.
Somalia and Yemen
Al Quaeda appears to be transferring key personnel from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia and Yemen, to assist rebels fighting against the governments of these two countries. And they are doing this in spite of Saudi and US air attacks on rebel bases. The foregoing suggests that al Qaeda has undergone a major and sudden change in priorities. However, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan or Pakistan plus a reconciliation with al Qaeda would give this organization sites for training camps out of range of Saudi and US aircraft, something which al Qaeda has not had since 2001.
This shift may even be a good omen for Afghanistan and Pakistan, although not for Obama. He is getting out of Iraq and will hopefully get out of Afghanistan by date certain. Suddenly he is confronted with the necessity of intervening in two more countries that weren’t on his menu. Needless to say, is not what the people at home bargained for when they elected him, even though it is not by any means his fault.
However, there is a saying in Spanish that you have to fight the bull which comes through the gate, no matter what you and the owner of the ring agreed to in contract negotiations. Now suddenly “the gate has opened” again and two ” bulls not in the contract”, Somalia and Yemen, “have come charging through it”.
This situation also exposes the greatest weakness of ex-governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, a possible rival to Pres. Obama in 2012. She is smart, spunky and can understand technical matters if she puts her mind to it. But she likes to pick and chose the problems which she confronts and the particular days on which she confronts them. Unfortunately in public life, there are a lot of problems like Somalia and Yemen that don’t care about ones preferences or schedule. In this case, the latter two seem to have “blown up” last Tuesday and that is the day on which Pres. Obama had to return to dealing with them, like it or not !
None of the foregoing means that either Taliban intends to [or is likely to] take over any of the countries mentioned other than Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is only to argue that a Taliban victory in one or both of them would cause all the other countries mentioned a lot of trouble. Hence these other countries not only should pray for Obama but they have good motives to assist him, albeit they may have to do this discretely.
Unfortunately few of them are providing any help at present, perhaps because of other entanglements. For example, China needs oil from Iran to keep its rapid economic growth going. And it needs rapid economic growth to prevent an overthrow of the regime. Both China and Russia have made commitments to make large investments in Iran, which is fiercely anti-US, although the Russian projects appear to be on hold for now. And Iran seems to be hell bent on making some atom bombs, regardless of the consequences for its other interests.
Meanwhile, energy buffs should note that any gas pipelines from Central Asia which are free of Chinese or Russian influence, must pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also that Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia collectively account for [roughly] 20% of the world’s combined production of crude oils of all kinds plus those refinery liquids which are extracted from natural gas and hence act as substitutes for crude oil.
Given the foregoing, don’t bet on any outcomes in the Central Asia or Mideast arenas ! The have become one and together, they constitute “a real crap shoot”.
Happy New Year !