Obama’s Afghan war: Dereliction of duty

The problem is not Afghanistan’s colossal challenges but Washington’s receding self-confidence and incapable leadership.

US President Barack Obama speaking during a visit to US soldiers at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan [EPA]

Osama bin Laden’s father-in-law, spiritual mentor and ideological comrade, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, is celebrating his “big victory” over the exchange of five of his senior commanders for one US soldier. The exchange prompts important political, strategic and moral questions over US President Barack Obama’s credibility and competency – and by extension that of the United States.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to recreate a new Russian imperial power from the ashes of the former Soviet empire, is Obama moving in the opposite direction by pursuing policies that cast doubt on the credibility, reliability and moral position of the US as a principled power? Does this exchange presage a “post-US era“?

Obama’s handling of the Afghan war demonstrates moral confusion, strategic naivete and political incompetency. He failed to reconcile his ambivalence about war with his responsibility as the commander-in-chief of a nation at war and the world’s sole superpower.

As a senator, Obama characterised the Afghan war as a “war of necessity“, but as president, he treated the war as a complicated legal case to be closed first by July 2011, then later by December 2014 and now by December 2016.

The only war that Obama really engaged in was with his own military and with an angry Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Unlike their confused counterparts, the ISI-Taliban-al-Qaeda triangle harboured no illusion about their purpose: defeat the West in the Hindu Kush as they did the Communist Soviet Union.

Political intercourse

Obama also appears to suffer from an intellectual confusion. He equates violence with war and diplomacy with civility/legality. But war is “simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means” according to Carl von Clausewitz.

Obama failed to utilise indispensible US military strength to pursue tangible political objectives. His moving deadlines of 2011, 2014 and 2016 effectively neutralised the US military’s gains.

If George W Bush represented US hubris and a ‘US-can-do-everything’ mindset, Obama manifested US insecurities and a ‘US-can’t-do-anything’ inclination.

If George W Bush represented US hubris and a “US-can-do-everything” mindset, Obama manifested US insecurities and a “US-can’t-do-anything” inclination. His public pledges to give up “nation-building” in Afghanistan and his diplomatic zeal to chase the Taliban for negotiation appear to be manifestations of exhaustion and self-doubt.

The problem is not Afghanistan’s formidable challenges or the Taliban’s brutality but Washington’s receding self-confidence and incapable leadership.

The US helped created a new world order after World War II and defeated its superpower archrival Communist bloc. Thousands of US soldiers have been in Asia and Europe for decades.

Obama could not make up his mind either on the duration or the necessary number of US soldiers in the most strategically important corner of the world and the front line of the global struggle against the new arch enemy of the United States: “militant Islamism”.

In his recent statement on Afghanistan, Obama used the example of Iraq-US relations for application to Kabul-Washington. The Iraq example is a geo-political joke. Baghdad is practically and politically now owned by Washington’s two polar rivals and enemies: Tehran and al-Qaeda. Washington’s influence has almost been strategically evicted from the Middle East. Likewise, the United States will be forced to leave Central, West and South Asia, should it fail to consolidate its influence in Afghanistan.         

The US release of the five senior Taliban commanders reveals a contradictory view of the Taliban. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel described the exchange as a normal process of prisoner exchange, implying that the Taliban is a conventional adversary engaged in war with the US. But according to US Vice President Joe Biden, the Taliban “are not our enemies”. The Taliban are also not on the US list of terrorist groups.

Violation of international law

Last year, Obama and his family met Malala Yousafzai, a lucky survivor of Taliban’s misogynistic terror campaign in Pakistan. The cordial meeting was preceded by the inclusion of Pakistan’s branch of the Taliban on the list of terror organisations. Despite overwhelming evidence that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are almost identical in nature, the US treats them differently.

If the Bush administration detained the five Taliban commanders on questionable legal ground, their release by the Obama administration is a clear violation of international law. According to US documents, at least two of the five men are accused of committing war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and torture. As a former professor of law, Obama should know the US is legally bound to put them on trial since these crimes have universal jurisdiction.

The relationship between the Afghan people, the Taliban and the West is clear. Millions of Afghans voted in their recent presidential election not only in defiance of the Taliban, but also reaffirming their desire to have an enduring and strategic partnership with the United States. The US flirtation with the Taliban will undermine US-Afghanistan relations and embolden the triangle of terror.

Unlike his ambivalence about war, Obama has shown his faith and conviction in the moral force of non-violence and justice. Afghanistan is where he can demonstrate his and his nation’s commitment and capacity to honour these ideals including Jus Post Bellum. More than the Americans, the Afghans are desperate for a just and lasting peace. Enduring peace can be secured only by vision, hard work and persistence, not appeasement and abandonment.

Davood Moradian is the director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former chief of programmes in President Hamid Karzai’s office and chief policy adviser to Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs.